Jim Gissy recalls the day he decided to become a millionaire. When he was a teenager, the talkative country boy from the rural North Florida town of Starke joined his family on a tubing expedition down the spring-fed Ichetucknee River. He was entranced by the crystal-clear waterway as it sauntered around massive limestone outcroppings and through a pristine hardwood hammock where whitetail deer frolicked.
His father, Joe, a forester, explained that if you floated beyond the boundaries of the Ichetucknee Springs State Park, you’d glide down the Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers and ultimately find yourself in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Then, just outside the boundaries of the park, I saw a sign,” says Gissy, now 53 and vice president of sales and marketing for Orlando-based Westgate Resorts, the largest privately owned time-share company in the world. “It said, ‘Riverfront Lots, $30,000.’ I asked my dad, ‘Can people really own property on a spring?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but that kind of thing’s only for rich people.’ Well, I decided then and there that I had to get rich.” Gissy did just that. In 1984 he joined David Siegel’s budding empire as a time-share salesman. Using his astonishing gift of gab and innate good-old-boy charm, he quickly became the company’s top closer. He rose through the ranks, eventually supervising some 2,500 salespeople and becoming a trusted confidant and right-hand man for the hardcharging Siegel.
But Gissy was no longer content to simply snare a lot on a spring-fed river. In 2006 he bought and restored an entire spring, hidden and forgotten on a primeval tract of land near Dunnellon, a town of fewer than 2,000 tucked in the southwest corner of Marion County. Gissy Springs, as the site is now known, is truly one of the most unusual – many visitors would say magical – pieces of private property in the state.
Geologists estimate that there are at least 720 freshwater springs in Florida. But most of them are owned and maintained by the state as tourist attractions and recreational areas.
“This was a unique situation,” says Laura Vedral, a staff biologist with Modica and Associates, a Clermont-based environmental consulting firm that helped Gissy navigate the permitting process. “They uncovered a real gem that also has great ecological value.” Discovering a spring of significant size is extremely rare, saysVedral, who told Gissy that she was “almost brought to tears” while kayaking along the run connecting the Rainbow River to the newly rejuvenated boil, where vents on the white-sand floor gush 72-degree water from deep in the Floridian acquifer.
“This place is the single most important thing in my life, other than my family,” says Gissy, who lives with his wife, Brenda, in an Italian-style mansion between lakes Sheen and Tibet Butler near Windermere. The couple has three grown children. “It exceeds every dream I ever had. If there’s a fountain of youth, I’ve found it here. I’m telling you, this is like holy water.” Gissy is a master at persuasion and prone to hyperbole. But at Gissy Springs, the loquacious salesman isn’t selling anything.
He doesn’t have to. His enthusiasm for his property seems as genuine and well-founded as his grand pronouncements about its historical significance and even its mystical healing powers.
Gissy had been a partner in a real-estate development along the Rainbow River, a 5.7-mile-long waterway that merges with the Withlacoochee River at Rainbow Springs State Park near Dunnellon. After he and his partner sold the 298-acre tract, Gissy began searching for a waterfront oasis of his own, assisted by a Dunnellon filmmakerturned- Realtor named Grant Austin Waldman.
“Grant wanted to show me some property on the Withlacoochee,” recalls Gissy. “We were in his office, and I said, ‘Don’t bother – that’s brown, dark water.’ I wanted something on the Rainbow River.” Waldman, who met Gissy while working as associate producer of Held for Ransom, a low-budget Dennis Hopper vehicle fi lmed in part on Westgate property, mentioned that he had heard rumors of a forgotten spring on private property near the river. Gissy was intrigued. “It’s like that music from the Twilight Zone went off in my head,” he says. “I wondered if this could be what I’d been looking for since I was a kid.” Waldman, along with Gissy’s brother, Michael, and his nephew, Kyle Cahoon, decided to fi nd out if the mysterious spring really existed. The Los Angeles native, who would eventually abandon his real-estate career to act as caretaker of Gissy Springs, led the makeshift expedition along the Rainbow River.
They eventually spotted what appeared to be a small tributary, obscured beneath a downed tree. Following its length on foot, they hacked their way through 2,100 feet of dense vegetation before stumbling upon a body of water choked by sediment and brush.
“We thought it was a swamp at fi rst,” says Waldman. “We Had to lift and move things over, but we saw this translucent water beneath.” They called Gissy, who told Waldman to locate the owner and to make an offer.
The asking price was $5 million. Gissy offered $2.1 million cash and within days had a contract to buy 108 isolated acres he had never even visited. It wasn’t his largest real-estate transaction, but it would prove to be his most gratifying.
“The next week, I looked at the property,” Gissy says. “I had a 120-day cancellation clause, so I knew I could get out of it if I had to.” But he found that the spring, though it was almost entirely covered by several feet of odorous slime, appeared salvageable, and the primordial setting exerted a powerful, almost spiritual allure to him.
The deal was done, and the dream was realized – but not without a huge investment of time, effort and money.
Following an arduous permitting process that involved both the Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers, Gissy hired crews to haul and pump 1,500 yards of sediment out of the woods and into a pit. The work, supervised by Gissy’s brother, Donald, revealed stunningly clear, azure blue water with a brilliant white-sand bottom.
In the muck, exoskeletons of sea creatures were abundant, dating from the Days when the state was covered by shallow seawater. gWhen you think about it, the whole history of the world is in that pit,h says Gissy.
That view was soon reinforced when Donald came across the massive skull of a mastodon beneath about 15 feet of goo.
Other bones were discovered nearby, and scientists from the University of Florida identifi ed them as belonging to the huge, tusked mammal, thought to have become extinct about 15,000 years ago.
Today, Gissy Springs is a vision of shimmering water where turtles and small fi sh contentedly swim, surrounded by wooden decks and boardwalks with built-in benches. A screened pavilion provides storage and shelter. Beyond the watery haven are dense woods where black panthers, bobcats and boars have been spotted.
On a recent sweltering mid-summer weekend, Gissy hosted about a dozen friends and family, as well as a handful of people that he seemed not to know but nonetheless welcomed heartily.
The affable owner was hard-pressed to recall the last time he spent any significant time alone at his remarkable getaway.
"My parents recently moved to a home about 10 miles from here," Gissy says. gSo sometimes after I visit them, Ifll stop by and stay a little while. But I love having family and friends over. On Memorial Day, I had about 75 people here.
Everybody had a great time.h But he does recall a few moments of solitude, courtesy of the watery haven he worked so hard to restore.
"When I swim to the bottom of Gissy Springs and look at the pristine water coming out of the blue hole, I feel like Ifm looking at the umbilical cord of God. The best words I can use to describe the feeling you get after swimming in these waters is espiritual healing. You can feel it in your mind, your body and your soul."
Orlando Home & Leisure, July 2010
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