Troubled water 


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It's a sleepy Thursday morning at Warm Mineral Springs in southwest Florida, at least until a peppy instructor starts a water aerobics class. Several dozen floppy-hatted floaters – median age somewhere around 70 – gravitate toward the shallow end of the sulphur-smelling pool, and recorded music streams into the blue sky. Strains of Sinatra and "The Chicken Dance" bring the spry elders to life, arms pumping and legs marching. Welcome to the fountain of youth. But why are they talking in Russian?

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Warm Mineral Springs, in the city of North Port, south of Sarasota, is a contemporary of Gatorland, a privately owned old Florida attraction dating to the early 1950s. It started as a natural health spa, but is virtually unknown to tourists in this country. It's what's in the water that appeals to the Eastern Europeans who make up 95 percent of the clientele. They've flocked there since the early days, seeking the therapeutic value of the unusual waters, which are salty and warm, a steady 87 degrees, and push up from an ancient fissure.

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But Warm Mineral Springs is more than just a bath to soothe aching joints. Deep dives into the springs in the 1970s yielded the oldest human remains in the Western Hemisphere, dating back 14,000 years to the Pleistocene era, a time before the end of the last ice age. The fountain of youth, as further studies have substantiated, is likely an ancient ceremonial burial ground.

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Warm Mineral Springs may have started as a quiet backwater, but those days are over. The bank Cypress Lending Group Ltd. foreclosed in February on the property after its owner defaulted on a loan for which he still owed $8.7 million, and it's now being spruced up in preparation for sale. Asking price: $11 million, negotiable.

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The future of the springs now depends on how much revenue it can generate, rather than its value as an archeological site or a natural resource. And right now, the money isn't coming in, says Gene Vaccaro, the man put in charge by Cypress to effect a turnaround at the ticket booth and get the property ready for sale.

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;; ;lmost immediately after Vaccaro and his partners took over, the daily admission fee climbed from $8 to $15, and then $20. He banned coolers on the property, forcing swimmers to purchase beverages and snacks on the property. Vaccaro makes no apologies for pricing out the current customer base. And the locals didn't give him much flak, because they don't go there, saying it's dirty. In fact, few folks outside of the Eastern Europeans – both visitors and those who retired in the community – are regulars. And that's what Vaccaro needs to change. He minces no words.;

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"The only way we're going to turn this place around is to get Americans in the door," says Vaccaro. "The only way we're going to get Americans is to bring this place up to a standard that they can respect. And it's been filthy for years."

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The glorified mud hole that is Warm Mineral Springs doesn't look like much. It's a circle in the earth only 241 feet in diameter, filled with murky, high-mineral-content water and rimmed by a landscaped lawn dotted with palm trees and lawn chairs. A moldy breezeway cuts through the adjoining concrete-block bathhouse and provides a straight shot from the parking area to the ticket booth to the pond. Massages, acupuncture, facials and other spa services are housed in the complex.

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The sinkhole is a turquoise-accented slice of the Old Florida-style attractions, but it's not likely to remain lost in time for much longer, no matter who gains control of the property.

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Random sampling in the community found that many area residents, old and young, know about Warm Mineral Springs but have never been for a dip; they refer to it to as the "lake." The general consensus is that the lake is polluted from receiving the runoff, so to speak, of the spring-soakers, many of them old and infirm. As one senior Polish woman tried to explain in broken English, "Sicks fats people empty there."

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But on a recent visit, only loose chunks of peat are floating in the water; that's because the bottom of the basin that isn't covered in pumped-in sand is naturally coated in muck. The water is a constant 87 degrees, give or take a degree depending on the season; it's brackish, tinged brownish by natural tannins, lightly salty – not like the ocean, but you can taste it – and saturated in minerals, including magnesium and the sulphur that's responsible for the rotten-egg odor.

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After a few minutes in the water, you get accustomed to the smell, and the buoyancy of the saltwater makes it effortless to float around. A lifeguard stand marks the deep end of the pool, where way down below – about 231 feet – sits the cave from which the water flows. The plumbing of the Warm Mineral Springs system works like a bathtub in reverse; water is always filling up from the bottom springhead at a rate of six million gallons per day, according to recent studies, and the top water is always spilling into the adjoining creek that eventually flows into Charlotte Harbor.

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The healing qualities of the water are mostly effective in easing muscle and joint pain, which makes sense because of the high magnesium content. A 20-something Russian immigrant who lives in the area with her husband and children says she heard that a young boy who was a bed-wetter was cured by regular soaking in the springs. This also makes sense, considering that a lack of magnesium is now considered the culprit for the disorder.

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Others claim the springs helped their eyesight and to soothe skin disorders, thanks to the high concentration of sulphur. A warm saltwater rinse has long been a home remedy for just about any malady. I felt relaxed after an hourlong or so morning soak. I was told that I shouldn't have rinsed off in the shower, though, that I would have benefited from leaving the dehydrated minerals on my skin for as long as possible.

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Florida filmmaker Larry Bestor is currently working on a PBS documentary about the medicinal properties of Warm Mineral Springs and other notables, such as Saratoga Springs in New York. He reports similar stories about the water helping arthritis and other diseases of the joints and muscles. Bestor is also planning a fictionalized docudrama about the springs and its unique history.

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But the fountain of youth it is not; authentication of Ponce de Leon's sought-after treasure has never been found. And that it would ever be Warm Mineral Springs is "highly improbable," according to John A. Gifford, a marine archaeologist at the University of Miami, who oversees the research at the nearby Little Salt Spring (see sidebar). But try telling that to the tens of thousands of Eastern Europeans who visit their fountain of youth every year.

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;; ;he day I met him, Vaccaro, 67 – a big, sweaty, folksy guy with a walkie-talkie and cell phone always in hand or ear – hosted lunch at the café on premises, just opened that day by an independent vendor. The new venture illustrates the changes and challenges Vaccaro faces. The upscale menu is perhaps too trendy, featuring grass-fed beef burgers, gourmet salads and sandwiches, plus versions of borscht and schnitzel for the old guard. The $6-plus prices are on par with Orlando eateries, but way too rich for incomes in the depressed Sarasota County economy, much less the fixed incomes of the elderly.;

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It seems cruel, but it's just business, says Vaccaro, who blames the last owner, Ed Ullmann, for what he's dealing with today. "Ullmann had a grand vision, but he didn't know how to get there. He kept taking out loans to fund his dreams but the money didn't come to the bank."

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Ullmann, a pharmacist by trade, bought Warm Mineral Springs in 1999 for $2.5 million. His upscale plan for luxury condos overlooking the spring was posted in detailed renderings on the Warm Mineral Springs website before the foreclosure. In reality, virtually nothing changed on the property in his 10-year tenure. The few rooms that had previously been rented are closed, so there is no on-site lodging, a major obstacle for satisfying out-of-town travelers. Ullmann concentrated on the healing property of the springs, which had an established clientele.

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Before Ullmann purchased Warm Mineral Springs from a string of family owners, the attraction and nearby property were heavily marketed in the Midwest in the 1970s, where there were established Russian, Polish and Jewish communities. It was like the old "Wanna buy a piece of land in Florida?" deal, but the promise delivered, says Vaccaro. The magic of healing waters is highly respected in those cultures, and a symbiotic relationship was established. As a result, the city of North Port itself – celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – has an established Eastern European community and supports a variety of food stores and churches that cater to the transplants. According to the 2000 census, the median age in North Port was 72, though since then that number has gone down as residential development picked up and the first schools were finally built, attracting younger families.

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As the schools went up, so did Ullmann's property taxes and the cost of upkeep. Vaccaro says the bathhouse deteriorated to the point of questionable hygiene. The bathrooms and changing rooms reeked of urine and mold, and he shudders when recalling the black goo lurking behind a kitchen wall, the result of years of concessions stands occupying the space. Vaccaro has been on property for about a year, and things have gotten better.

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Vaccaro wants to turn Warm Mineral Springs into a luxury spa for wealthy women, basing his vision on the privately owned Glen Ivy Hot Springs, outside Los Angeles, which made a radical financial change in the 1970s. Glen Ivy stepped away from selling therapeutic soaks and emphasized resort-quality treatments and accommodations. Its natural water and red clay are the now the main ingredients in their line of products.

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Vaccaro's short-term plans include day trips aboard shuttle buses departing from cities all over Florida, including Orlando. Long-term plans could include a Warm Mineral Springs product empire, with an introductory line of merchandise already on sale via the website (www.warmmineralsprings.com).

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But it takes money to make money, so there are three likely outcomes for Warm Mineral Springs, he says. "It could be bought by a private owner. It could be bought by the city and county. Or it could become a public-private venture."

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So far there are no takers at the steep asking price of $11 million. The possibility of the city of North Port and Sarasota County joining together for a purchase is fraught with peril, he says. He feels that the two have opposing interests – the city looking for immediate revenue to generate desperately needed tax dollars, and the county trying to preserve the property as a natural resource. Neither has preservation or archeology on their agenda, confirms Vaccaro, though there is a driving consciousness about protecting the current environment. He would like to see an on-site museum there one day to tell the history.

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But can either the city or the county really afford the ticket price?

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;; ; July 24 article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that the city of North Port "has earmarked $6.6 million for the springs in its proposed budget" and that Warm Mineral Springs is the city commission's "No. 1 priority." The Herald-Tribune also stated that the county's Sarasota Conservation Foundation hopes to "partner in the purchase with North Port to ease the burden on both bidders.";

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A public-private venture appears to offer the most interest to Vaccaro and company, given the amount of infrastructure that the city could provide.

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No matter who ultimately owns Warm Mineral Springs, the fact is another natural Florida water resource has been compromised. On its website, the Save Florida Springs organization features the exploits of Perrier, Nestlé and other corporate, as well as civic plunderers, which are essentially sucking springs dry for bottled water sales. But there is a particularly regrettable lament for Warm Mineral Springs. The human remains found there blow away the standing theory that the earliest inhabitants of Florida arrived only 3,000-5,000 years ago. It's now evident that even before the end of the last ice age, natives were using the site, then a tiny oasis in an arid landscape.

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Timeline for two springs

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1874: F. Trench Townsend publishes his experiences at Warm Mineral Springs in Wildlife in Florida.

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Late 1950s: Local adventurer Col. William Royal starts a series of dives at WMS and finds preserved human remains and artifacts. The springs open as a privately owned health spa.

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1959: City of North Port is incorporated.

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1960: Royal and biologist Eugenie Clark publish Natural Preservation of Human Brain, Warm Mineral Springs, Florida.

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1972: Anthropologist Carl J. Clausen of the state's Bureau of Historic Sites and Properties excavates the ledge in the cave under WMS and confirms remains found there were late Pleistocene era, or more than 10,000 years old.

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1973: Wilburn "Sonny" Cockrell, another archaeologist with the bureau, excavates a "nearly complete individual" whose remains were radiocarbon-dated at approximately 11,900 calendar years.

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1977: WMS is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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1979: LSS is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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1982: The 113-acre property that includes LSS is donated by the city of North Port to the University of Miami.

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1986: Smithsonian magazine publishes an article on both springs, and Cockrell campaigns to get the site in public ownership and establish a Florida State University underwater research station.

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1992: State funding for Cockrell's work is discontinued.

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1993: LSS becomes the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, a research facility and archaeological and ecological preserve.

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1999: Ed Ullmann's company, Golden Springs LLC, buys WMS and markets it primarily to Eastern Europeans as a healing and wellness center.

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2008: A three-week underwater excavation at LSS, funded by the National Geographic Society, recovers skeletal remains of an extinct tortoise and giant ground sloth discovered in 1975.

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2009: In February, Ullmann can't pay the bills at WMS and the property goes into foreclosure; potential buyers include the city of North Port, Sarasota County and private investors. In July, another National Geographic Society-funded dive begins at Little Salt Spring.

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(Major resource: "Warm Mineral Springs and Little Salt Springs: Two of Sarasota County's Archaeological Treasures," April 2009, Steven H. Koski and John A. Gifford)

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Meet the silent sister

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Most of the residents in the vicinity of North Port know about Warm Mineral Springs, even if they've never been there. But very few people know about its sister, Little Salt Spring, just two miles northeast, a modest facility owned and operated by the University of Miami as the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

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Site manager Steven H. Koski, 55, a diver and archaeologist, lives in the on-site trailers – they serve as both his home and storage facilities. He alone maintains the property, under the supervision of Dr. John A. Gifford, and contributes his time to the nonprofit Warm Mineral Springs/Little Salt Spring Archaeology Society. That citizen group draws locals together with the common interest in preserving the cultural heritage and history of the springs and educating the public about their significance.

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Koski, also involved in the sensational 1988 find of ancient Native American remains at Manasota Key, says Little Salt Springs is similar to Warm Mineral Springs but very different to scientists. WMS contains 20 times the mineral content of LSS, so the latter isn't as salty and doesn't smell of sulphur. But the two warm, artesian springs illustrate different approaches to the preservation of ; the past.

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Little Salt is a pristine site that's never been compromised by public usage. And while Warm Mineral Springs has yielded priceless antiquities, the basin was essentially vacuumed out and sand pumped in to replace the rocky bottom with a soft surface for visitors; years of use and abuse have compromised the integrity of the site. LSS, on the other hand, has undisturbed, uninvestigated underwater possibilities.

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Koski plays an interesting role in the stories of both springs. The New England native worked at Warm Mineral in the 1970s and is one of the few remaining people who has scuba-dived at both of the springs. He knows where the bodies are buried, literally.

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Because there was little regulation at the time of the early finds, the dives at Warm Mineral have left many questions in the minds of the scientists, folklorists and developers trying to piece the history together. Koski and Gifford have reported on the "mystery, intrigue and controversy" surrounding the artifacts they found. — LTS

; lshepherd@orlandoweekly.com

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