* Duke Energy says nuclear plant will be retired
* Crystal River residents worry about economic impact
* Only U.S. spot where people can legally swim with manatees
By Saundra Amrhein
CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla., Feb 14 (Reuters) - The decision earlier this month to retire a nuclear plant near this small Florida city - potentially costing hundreds of jobs and lost revenue - has residents banking on the lure of the endangered manatee.
"We'll always have tourism, we'll always have manatees. That's a huge draw," said Michele Bunts, manager of Cracker's Bar, Grill & Tiki, as employees wiped down tables in preparation for the lunch crowd on the deck overlooking the sparkling blue waters of Kings Bay, the headwaters of Crystal River.
As the nation's only place where people can legally swim with manatees, Crystal River draws tourists from around the world for a chance to snorkel with the sea cows, which can be 10 feet long and weigh between 800 and 1,200 lbs (364 to 545 kg). Tourists also enjoy the chance to spot the creatures from a boat or land.
Bunts expects that her restaurant, a popular watering hole in this central-west Florida city of about 4,000 people, could see a decline in customers in the wake of Duke Energy Corp's announcement last week that it will retire the plant. Like many of her fellow residents, she hopes that tourists flocking to see the manatees will make up the difference in lost revenue.
Residents will have some time to absorb the impact as the process of decommissioning the nuclear plant takes decades, said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for Progress Energy Florida, a subsidiary of Duke. "It's not like a factory where we lock the doors and everybody gets a pink slip," he said.
The Crystal River nuclear plant had been in operation since 1977, helping serve Duke's 1.6 million Florida customers. It had already been shut down and offline since 2009 due to structural damage during upgrades to the unit's steam generators.
About 600 people could lose their jobs once the plant is eventually retired, but there will be plenty of work for at least the next five to seven years, said Ivey. The plant would then transition into a "mothballed-type status" for another 20 to 25 years.
The Kings Bay manatee refuge, located about 80 miles (129 km) north of Tampa, lies about 8 miles (13 kilometers) south of the nuclear plant complex.
The dozens of natural freshwater springs in the bay area are home to hundreds of manatees during winter months as the herbivorous marine mammals escape the chilly waters of the Gulf of Mexico for the 72-degree Fahrenheit warmth of the brackish sanctuary.
The manatee's importance to the town's tourist industry is on display in front of the tan-brick one-story City Hall - a star-studded replica of the mammal painted red, white and blue.
The nuclear plant is on Duke property along with four coal-powered energy plants that are expected operate at least for the next few years.
Duke said it was considering alternatives to replace the nuclear plant, including the construction of a new natural gas-fired plant.
Duke is the largest employer and taxpayer in Citrus County, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Shutting the nuclear plant would lower the company's tax bill from $35 million to as little as $13 million, a loss that equals a quarter of the county's general fund, the paper reported.
Residents worry that the closure could further depress the housing market in this rural county dotted by forest preserves, strip malls and manatee attractions.
Store and restaurant owners were hoping to recoup lost business if Duke chose to decontaminate the plant, adding more workers. Instead, the company announced on Feb. 5 it planned to pursue another option, safely storing the plant for several decades to let nature help with the decay before cleaning out the rest of the radiation.
Crystal River Mayor Jim Farley acknowledged that the county as a whole might take a hit should many employees be reassigned out-of-state and if property tax income drops if Duke does not replace the nuclear facility with a natural gas plant.
But he predicted that ongoing plans for the springs will make the area a bigger ecotourism attraction than it already is.
"It's not going to be a disaster," Farley said. "I think we're going to be able to cope. We'll lose some business because of it, probably. These are tough economic times as it is, but we have so much going for us."
Long-term residents roll their eyes at the promises of city-sponsored development of ecotourism. Officials have been saying that for years, said Greg Dristiliaris, deli manager at a Shell gas station.
Plant workers once packed the place in the mornings to buy lunch sandwiches and in late afternoons after work to buy food, beer, cigarettes or tobacco, he said. He used to have 30-40 pizzas on hand to sell each day, he said. Now he does not offer pizzas at all.
Like the others, Dristiliaris said the most challenging part of the news is the uncertainty of what comes next. But as a long-time Floridian, he compared coping with tumultuous change to another familiar part of life in Florida - hurricanes.
"You just got to roll with it," he said.