TALLAHASSEE — Despite only one group showing interest, state officials are moving forward on a plan to erect sponsored signs on seven state trails, including the Withlacoochee State Trail that passes through Hernando and Pasco counties.
After a conference call this summer that had attracted more interest, Bike Path Country was the only organization to follow through, said Samantha Browne, chief of the state’s Office of Greenways and Trails.
The group acts as a middleman, providing “socially responsible sponsorships, while helping municipalities raise money for their parks and recreation departments,” according to its website.
Bike Path Country, based in Westchester County, N.Y., did not respond to a call and email earlier this month seeking comment.
Browne said she would meet with supervisors at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which her office is under, to discuss whether to move forward with the group.
Pinellas County is working with the same company for signage on the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail, said Paul Cozzie, the county’s Parks and Conservation Resources Director.
“We’ve been working with them now for about 8 months in putting together wayfinding signage on the Pinellas Trail to replace the old gray and maroon signs out there,” he said.
The seven state trails drew a combined 1.7 million visitors in 2011, according to state records, including more than 287,000 using the Withlacoochee trail.
State lawmakers seeking to raise money for trail upkeep passed a law in 2012 allowing companies and nonprofit groups to sponsor certain state trails.
In addition to the Withlacoochee Trail, billed as the longest paved trail in Florida, they are Blackwater Heritage Trail, Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail, Nature Coast State Trail and Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail in north Florida; the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail in central Florida; and the Overseas Heritage Trail in the Florida Keys.
Under the law, sponsorship signs can be placed only at trailheads or access points and can be no larger than 16 square feet at trailheads and 4 square feet at access points.
“There may be more than one sponsorship on each state trail but no more than one sponsor for each trailhead and access point,” according to state guidance for potential sponsors.
The Withlacoochee has seven trailheads through Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties, records show.
Koala Outdoor, a Polk County company that offers billboard advertising, was another that took part in the conference call but did not pursue a proposal. A representative did not respond to a request for comment.
The sponsorship measure originally had drawn opposition from some environmentalists, who feared miniature billboards would mar the landscape.
But the signs cannot “intrude on natural and historic settings,” the law says, and can contain only a logo and wording that reads, “(Name of the sponsor) proudly sponsors the costs of maintaining the (name of the greenway or trail).”
Any proceeds from future sponsorships will be split 85 percent toward greenway and trail management and operation, and 15 percent toward the state Transportation Trust Fund for use in the Traffic and Bicycle Safety Education Program and the Safe Paths to School Program, according to state law.
There are no guidelines for sponsorship dollar amounts, with the state asking applicants to suggest the amounts, according to the project’s question-and-answer document.
Cozzie said Pinellas County leaders will receivea full-size mockup of a sign some time in January. If it is approved, he estimated new signs to go up on the trail in spring or early summer.
The contract between Pinellas County and Bike Path Country is two years and the county will receive 30 percent of the program’s net profit, Cozzie said.
“We’ve been really happy with them,” Cozzie said of the company. “They’re very responsive, very eager to make this project happen. They had a product that met our needs that wouldn’t have any cost to the county and would actually produce some revenue. It was just a good fit.”
Holly Parker, policy director for the Florida Trails Association, said her group “always appreciates the Legislature’s attempts to creatively fund our trails and greenways.”
But, she added, “our trails do provide a pretty rare sanctuary from advertising, which we’re all inundated with on a daily basis.”
Suncoast News reporter Eric Horchy contributed to this article.