Bass Pro asks for more time for permitting; Johnny Morris ‘extremely focused on’ Lake Okeechobee

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee County Commission agreed Tuesday to give Bass Pro more time to shape their plans for the development of the Okee-Tantie Recreation Area into a world class fishing resort. At their March 26 meeting, the commissioners asked County Attorney John Cassels to work with Bass Pro and Big Cedar Lodge attorneys on the contract language and bring it back at the next commission meeting.

Michael Dunham, of Big Cedar LLC, said several factors have come into play since Bass Pro and the county signed the initial agreement for Bass Pro to develop the Okee-Tantie recreation area 15 months ago.

He stressed that Johnny Morris, founder of Big Cedar Lodge and Bass Pro Shops, is still “extremely focused on the lake.”

“He is very concerned about keeping the greatest bass fishing lake in America, the greatest bass fishing lake in America,” said Mr. Dunham.

Mr. Dunham said they plan to develop Okee-Tantie as a signature fishing resort. This will require tens of millions of dollars of investment, he added.

Phase 1 will include excavation to create a channel for a secondary marina, he explained.

This will make it possible to maintain the existing marina and boat ramp, which will remain open to the public, and also have a secondary marina exclusive to the use of the guests of the resort.

He said they have studied the algae bloom and water quality issues, and are “positive it is going to be adequately corrected to restore the health of the lake.”

Mr. Dunham said they understand the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to bring the lake level down long enough to allow burning off of the dead vegetation around the edges and regrowth of the marshes.

“One of the areas of the company he is most proud of is our conservation efforts,” he said.

“I think it is very important that the lake is going to be brought down. I have learned about the burn and about the damage done by the hurricane. It will take time for regeneration.

Items already completed in the Okee-Tantie project include surveying the property, completing Phase 1 environmental study, development of a site plan, and researching of all necessary local, state and federal permits required.

“There is still a pretty long list of things we have to achieve,” he added. He asked for an additional year for the due diligence phase.

Items still to be completed (with time estimates) include:
• Investigation of structure cut and fill analysis (one month);
• Ecological study (estimated to take three months);
• Wetland delineation (three months);
• Expanded environmental impact report (six months);
• Prepare U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit application (six months);
• Environmental Resources Permit Application (12-15 months);
• Consumptive Use Assessment (12-15 months);
• FDEP Wastewater Permitting (12-15 months);
• FDOT Access Management Permit, site zoning (12-15 months);
• National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting (12-15 months);
• Final Site Plan Development (12-15 months);
• Overall permitting, management and logistics (12-15 months);
• Site development construction drawings (12-15 months).

Mr. Dunham said the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of the development is critical to the project. Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said he spoke to Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds on Friday. He said the corps is ready to work with Bass Pro and encouraged them to submit the permit application as soon as possible so they can get started on it. The corps permitting process will take about a year, he said.

Mr. Dunham said they will also work closely with the county on issues of water and sewer.

Okeechobee County is seeking the state’s help with funds for a sewer line along the Rim Canal to Okee-Tantie.

Mr. Dunham said they consider Okee-Tantie the ideal location for a fishing resort.

“Our whole issue is to get more people, especially kids, involved in the outdoors,” he said.

Commissioner Bryant Culpepper initially opposed the extension, although he later added he is not “against Bass Pro.”

“We’re going into the third extension. My concern is what happens if they drop the level of the lake to 10.5 feet? If we go to 10 feet, that is going to be a big problem,” he said.

Commissioner Culpepper added that he is concerned the Bass Pro project will mean airboaters will not have use of Okee-Tantie.

“On April 15, that is the day this contract is ended. We can’t keep going and going without a light at the end of this tunnel. In the interim, we might lose someone who is interested in moving on this right away,” he said.

Commissioner David Hazellief, who is a member of the County Coalition for the Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuaries and the Indian River Lagoon, said the coalition had a presentation from the Corps of Engineers at their March 22 meeting.

“They assured us they have no intention of letting the lake go down to 10 feet,” he said.

Mr. Hazellief said the corps wants to draw it down one time “for the vitality of the lake to get the vegetation growing back.”

He said they are releasing some water from the lake to benefit the regrowth of the marshes, but it won’t stay low long-term.

“By June we will be back in the rainy season,” he said.

He said the county will fight for the health of Lake Okeechobee.

“I personally believe if we had to file suit against the Corps of Engineers to protect the lake, this county would do that,” he said.

Commissioner Kelly Owens said “the larger counties around the lake who depend on the lake as their water source are supporting what the Heartland counties are also supporting as far as the health of the lake.”

She encouraged the Bass Pro representatives to study the science.

Commissioner Kelly noted the “special interest rhetoric” pushing for a 10.5-foot lake level is starting to fall apart.

“When I talked to Mr. Morris, I know he is very excited about the education piece of it, the conservation piece of it with kids,” she said.

She noted Okeechobee has a strong youth fishing program as well as a high school fishing team.

“I look forward to a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Bass Pro and Big Cedar,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread.

“I look forward to your investing in our county. I think on our side, we can invest in this project with a little bit of time,” he said.

“I am very positive with what our future holds for the county and for the lake. I am very positive about what our future holds with Bass Pro and Big Cedar.

“I just hope that we as a board give you some extra time, you won’t take advantage of that and go ahead and put this thing to bed as quickly as possible,” he added.

Chairman Burroughs said the corps is not going to change the lake level schedule to a low of 10.5 feet as proposed by Congressman Brian Mast, “because if they come down to 10.5 feet there will be some people on the coast without water.”

He said he understands this is not an easy project.

“You are going to build a premier lodge in our community, which is going to bring a lot of value to the community,” he said.

“Development is not easy in Florida,” said Mr. Dunham. “It takes time.

“The first phase alone just because of infrastructure is tens of millions of dollars,” he said.

“We are on board to do this project,” he said. “John (Morris) does do things right.

“We have a lot of money already invested that we can’t get back,” he added.

He said Bass Pro and Big Cedar will use all of their marketing resources to bring people to the Okee-Tantie resort.

“We’re very excited about everything we can do,” he said.

“It could be a great thing for Central Florida,” said Mr. Dunham.

Commissioner Hazellief noted airboats don’t use ramps. He said the county is working on a plan to provide access to the lake for the airboaters elsewhere.

Chairman Burroughs asked that Bass Pro provide regular progress reports to the county staff to keep county commission updated.

“I think we are all in agreement on the extension,” said Mr. Hazellief. He suggested they let the staff and attorneys work out the language in the agreement and bring it back at the next meeting.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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