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Everglades' old guard girds for county park fight

Clint Bridges wrestles 13-foot alligators. He also builds airboats and drives them deep into the flat, featureless expanse of the Florida Everglades without ever getting lost.

But to make a living through these talents, Bridges needs about 30 acres of marshy wilderness. He could count on that for the past quarter-century, thanks to the family business: running Everglades Holiday Park. For Bridges, the Broward County park, at the desolate western end of Stirling Road, is the only home he knows.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, an international cast of wide-eyed tourists queues to pay the $21 price of an airboat ride. From Bridges' corner office inside the park's main building, he has a view of a parking lot and campground that are both nearly full. "This place, my family built it up to what it is today," he says.

But the Bridges don't own the land. They lease it from the state, which leases it from the county, which has never expressed an interest in managing the land. Until now.

The county plans to take control of Everglades Holiday Park after the Bridges' lease runs out, in 2012. Already, county representatives have held public meetings touting a park makeover that might include hot-air balloon rides and cable cars, boardwalks and equestrian trails.

That vision may not include the Bridges and their fleet of airboats. As to whether it also includes 24-hour, no-fee access that the park's sportsmen currently enjoy, that too is anyone's guess.

The changes look good on the surface, says Eric Kimmel, a hunter and frogger, but he has concerns. "Because when an agency takes over, the original culture tends to lose access. We're worried they're going to turn it into a theme park."

Mitch Bridges, Clint's father, dropped out of school in 6th grade to pick tobacco near the tiny town of Soperton, in central Georgia. At 18, he moved to the Miami area for construction work. He couldn't really afford a hobby, but he was fascinated by airboats. He built his first in the backyard of the family's Rolling Oaks home in 1976, years before the family had running water.

A love for bass and snook fishing made Mitch a regular at Everglades Holiday Park. By 1981, he was managing it for the leaseholder, who owned a bus company. When that lease expired in 1982, Mitch and his wife, Linda, signed on as the park's new concessionaires.

Nobody else was clamoring for the chance to make money in the remote outpost. The county had been leasing it, at no cost, to the state since 1964. The state was happy to let the Bridges take control.

Mitch added more airboats, more campsites, and a bigger store that could hawk fishing and hunting supplies around the clock. After those investments made money, the family bought more motorboats for rental and more airboats, built six tiki huts, and opened a deli and a souvenir shop.

In recent years, Clint Bridges, now 31, has become the general manager of the family business as his father, Mitch, now 65, enjoys an early retirement. The park has grown more popular each year — in 2006, the Bridges put 350,000 people on airboats, they say. The most recent lease calls for the Bridges to pay more than $16,000 in yearly rent, plus share a percentage of the revenue. The family business has 30 employees. It turns a tidy profit.

The county has noticed. And in the same year that the Department of Parks and Recreation faces 5 percent cuts in its operating budget, it has looked toward its forgotten properties — like Everglades Holiday Park — for fresh revenue streams.

Parks and Recreation Director Bob Harbin says that Everglades Holiday Park is a "valuable access point to the Everglades" and that county improvements "could certainly help offset some of the costs [the department] generates right now."

On June 27, Harbin hosted a public hearing at the county's Southwest Regional Library in Pembroke Pines to discuss the park's future uses. The Bridges had not seen a single notice posted in the park, they say; they learned of the hearing through word of mouth and in the week before summoned the "Gladesmen" who hunt and fish in the park. "People were banging on the doors to get in" to the hearing, says Clint Bridges, with evident pride. He estimates that more than 200 people showed up, and "every one of them said, 'Leave the park the way it is.' "

Rick Persson, vice president of South Florida Anglers for Everglades Restoration, was one of those voices. "Most fishermen and hunters, they don't like change," Persson says. "Our main concern is that the park has to be open 24/7 and 365 days a year."

Everglades Holiday Park is ranked by fisheries researchers as among the best in the state for bass-fishing. The prime hours to fish are in the early morning, when the water is cool enough to coax bass closer to the surface. Fishermen want to launch their boats before 5 a.m. and be on the water before dawn. Duck hunters want to have their decoys in place before the sun rises. Broward County parks, however, tend to limit access from dusk to dawn — a prospect that horrifies some Gladesmen.

Many county parks also charge access fees, while there are none at Everglades Holiday Park.

As the county gauges public opinion about plans for the park, Clint Bridges hopes to keep its staunchest users in his corner. "I'm going to keep the Gladesmen's interests first," he says, sounding a bit like a candidate for public office. "I have a financial interest here, but the truth is, I was a fisherman before I was a business owner."

It may be hard to keep the Gladesmen galvanized behind his family's management of the park, however. After the June 27 meeting, Harbin, the Parks and Recreation director, realized that his agency may be able to offer the best of both worlds: infrastructure and facility improvements to the existing park as well as a continuation of the 24/7 access that is key to the hearts of sportsmen.

"That's up for discussion," Harbin says of all-hours access. "There's a large group that is spreading rumors that we'll shut [the park] down for certain hours. That's not necessarily true. Our interest is in public access, and if they want 24-hour access, I have no problem as Broward Parks and Recreation director recommending that."

Still, if airboat rides and alligator shows have proved lucrative, won't the county be inclined to contract with the same family that assumed the risk and has succeeded so far?

Clint hopes so. "It's going to be beneficial for them to have someone in the park to actually do these things, as opposed to taking on more financial weight," he says.

The county would have to put that contract out to competitive bid, however. And that could pit the Bridges against a new threat, such as the Seminole Tribe, which already has an airboat business on Alligator Alley. Should Seminole members wish to branch out, they'd have the resources to swamp operators like the Bridges.

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