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A meeting of the minds transpired in Fanning Springs last Wednesday at a workshop designed to determine next steps in deciding where the access road for the proposed Holiday Inn Express will be located.
The Gilchrist County Board of County Commissioners, Fanning Springs mayor and City Council, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), Joe Mittauer of Mittauer and Associates Engineering, the Florida Department of Agriculture (FDACS), Greenways and Trails, and representatives from both U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho and state Rep. Keith Perry’s offices were present along with concerned citizens and representatives for the hotel developer Azim Saju, managing partner of the Ocala based Hotel Development and Management Group (HDG).
The hotel is to be located behind the trailhead building right off of the Nature Coast State Trail, where the trail meets U.S. Highway 19 on the Gilchrist County side.
Gilchrist County commissioner Ray Harrison (District 2), acted as chairperson of the meeting. He said Gilchrist County is on record as having approved an easement across their lot, now used by the ag station, as a last resort. The preferred route would be across the Nature Coast State Trail, he said, adding that if Greenways and Trails can approve that, it will be the “ultimate solution for the county … and everyone involved.”
A common theme among the comments of those pushing the project forward was the need to expedite the process.
“It’s of vital concern to Fanning Springs to have a nice hotel here,” said Fanning Springs Mayor Cheryl Nekola, who later added that the hotel will facilitate Fanning Springs becoming a destination for visitors. Speaking to FDOT and other organization representatives, Nekola said that everyone is on board, they just need the help of those organizations to get past the issue of access for the hotel.
Tommy Langford, former Gilchrist County Commissioner, spoke on behalf of Azim Saju the hotel developer saying the process needs to proceed as quickly as possible so that they can lock in an interest rate. He said with a project of this magnitude, a fraction of a point in interest can make the difference of whether or not the investors will make money and interest rates are creeping up. He also said Fanning Springs is in competition with Williston as a potential location for the hotel.
“They’ve committed themselves and their money,” Langford said, speaking passionately about the project, asking workshop participants to expedite the process as much as they can and drawing a couple of “amens” from the crowd. “Fanning Springs cannot afford to lose this project.”
Safety is a major concern for the access point, with turn lanes on U.S. Highway 19 and a pedestrian crossing on the Nature Coast Trail being taken into consideration. There was discussion of possible shifts in the median to facilitate safer traffic flow with a FDOT person saying that a traffic study will be required.
After each participating party had an opportunity to speak, questions were directed at FDOT with the Gilchrist County Commissioners saying that it comes down to Greenways and Trails and FDOT and asking the two agencies to determine what they will approve as far as egress and ingress goes. Mittauer asked what a reasonable amount of time would be for the FDOT to get back with a proposal. FDOT representatives said they would have a recommendation by the end of August, which leaves almost a month to continue preparing the permit application while they wait on approval of a grant waiver from the Florida Small Cities Community Development Block Grant Program.
Plans for the hotel call for a stable and bike racks to cater to guests wishing to utilize the trail. The project will bring an estimated 91 new jobs to the area during construction and 30 permanent jobs after its completion, according to information presented at a July 15 city council meeting.