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So I like Tom Campenni. A Stuart resident and former City Commissioner, he puts out the weekly “Friends & Neighbors of Martin County” newsletter which, every now and then, takes a polite swipe at yours truly.

Such was the case in his Oct. 17 newsletter, where he disagreed completely with my recent take on Stuart’s Sailfish Splash Waterpark.

The park, I noted, got hammered financially this year because of COVID-19. But the park requires a subsidy every year; plus, Martin County has to spring for periodic upgrades to keep the attraction fresh.

Before it was built, there was a big debate over whether the county should be in the water park business. But that ship has sailed.

Now, I wrote, we should see the water park as an amenity, like any other park. It’s “something to do” in Martin County, where there’s not much to do, particularly for younger people and families.

MORE: Port St. Lucie brings back ‘We Love Lucie’ concerts despite pandemic | Gil Smart

MORE:Sailfish Splash lost money but does that make it a bad investment? | Gil Smart

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Sailfish Splash Waterpark, shown in a 2019 file photo, is owned by Martin County and expenses are covered, in part, by tax dollars. (Photo: LEAH VOSS/TCPALM)

Campenni, though, pointed out other parks in Martin County are free — whereas Sailfish Splash charges admission, $13.95 for kids and $15.95 for adults.

“When a family needs $70 to use a county facility, many of our residents are automatically excluded,” he wrote. “The families who cannot afford to go there are probably the ones that need the park the most.”

And, well, good call. Maybe there should be some provision allowing lower-income residents to get into the park for less, or for free.

That, of course, could make Sailfish Splash even more of a money sink.

But does any of this obviate the need for an amenity like Sailfish Splash, catering to young people and families?

That’s a loaded word, “need.” Critics — like Campenni — say if there really was a need, the private sector would have filled it.

But Martin County in particular has a tendency to step in where the market fails to provide.

Shortly after I finish writing this column, I’m off to tour the county-owned Martin County Golf Course. It’s in the midst of a $5.5 million redesign which will include replacing the Red and White 18-hole course with a 9-hole “reversible” course, a new clubhouse with a full kitchen, full bar and 20 new high-tech hitting bays a la Top Golf or Big Shots (check my column online Monday/in print Tuesday for the latest look).

It could make the previously-struggling course more competitive; it could be a model for public courses nationwide. It could be awesome!

But it’s a county-owned course; all this is being done with county tax dollars. And as Martin County has plenty of private golf courses, how appropriate is it for the county to use those tax dollars to compete with them?

Or, take the county’s beachside concession stands. At Jensen Beach, the county owns and operates the Sand Dune Cafe. At Stuart Beach, the privately-owned Chef Shak served the beachside vittles until the county in 2018 decided to end the lease and build yet another county-run cafe.

St. Lucie County doesn’t do this; vendors/food trucks are allowed in beach parking lots, but the county itself isn’t in the food business.

Then again, Port St. Lucie does have its “I Love Lucie” concert series at the MidFlorida Credit Union Events Center. This year’s lineup features Foghat, Molly Hatchet and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Little River Band, and a country two-fer with Jo Dee Messina and Tracy Byrd.

Good stuff. But is this the proper role of government? It’s hard to see the Founding Fathers sitting around pontificating: “Yea, verily, this government of the people, by the people, for the people shall… promote Foghat concerts.”

All this absolutely amounts to mission creep. 

But there are just some times the market’s not going to get done what the community wants done.

Port St. Lucie’s concert series was developed because residents told city leaders they wanted more live performance. And, officials recognized a growing city requires certain amenities to thrive. Arts and culture is important.

But “the market” in Port St. Lucie seems primarily interested in building new housing developments and strip malls. So if the city was going to deliver on what residents said they wanted, city officials had to climb into the driver’s seat.

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Or go back to the Stuart Beach cafe. When the Chef Shak got pushed out I wrote about it, I felt bad for the owner. But Martin County Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Abbate said the building needed an “extreme makeover,” one likely to cost more than the Chef Shak could afford.

“We want people to say ‘It looks great,’ ” Abbate told me at the time. In other words, the county — county residents — expected a certain standard. And county officials felt the only way to get that was for the county to run the show itself.

All goes to that “quality of life” we love to invoke. A lot goes into that, and sometimes, local government needs to shore it up.

It’s just a question of how much is too much.

Knowing what we know now, and in the midst of a pandemic, I’d be hard pressed to argue Martin County should build a water park in 2020. That doesn’t mean, though, we’d be better off without it.

True, taxpayers might have a few more bucks in their wallets.

But let’s hope that’s never this community’s ultimate arbiter of success.

Gil Smart is a TCPalm columnist and a member of the Editorial Board. His columns reflect his opinion. Gil can be reached at [email protected], by phone at (772) 223-4741 or via Twitter at @TCPalmGilSmart.

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