The road to nature tourism began when the water district bought Ocklawaha Farms southeast of Ocala, a 2,600-acre tract of land that had been supplying compost for more than 70 years. Most of the acreage was restored to marshland, but some of the higher ground and accompanying buildings presented a profit-making opportunity. Both Pew Charitable Trusts and the Audubon Society tried their hand at creating a nature-based resort, but it took a professional hotelier to get the project off the ground.
Stanley Selengut, who runs several renowned eco-resorts in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was scouting for property on the U.S. mainland when he stumbled on the struggling resort. Last year, he leased 52 acres of land with a renovated lodge, some guest cabins, and a swimming pool from the water district.
Since then, he has continued to add more cabins, eco-tents, which are more informal accommodations, and a restaurant. Guests enjoy activities from canoe and kayak trips to natural history programs. They can explore the local waters, hike an extensive trail system, and view wildlife that includes river otters, sandhill cranes, and Florida black bear and bobtail wildcat.
A first-rate nature experience in a full-service resort costs visitors just $125 per night in high season. The water district gets $42,000 a year in lease payments from Selengut and as more guest cabins are added, the lease payments will increase. Selengut is already tinkering with expansion plans, and the water district is optimistic as well. Robert Christianson, director of the district's operations and land resources, is looking for other water district sites that are suitable for profit-making partnerships.