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Hernando commission refuses to grant TreeUmph! reprieve on lease

By Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writer
JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times The opening of the TreeUmph! facility east of Brooksville -- similar to this one in Bradenton -- has been delayed because of damage to the property during Hurricane Irma.

BROOKSVILLE — TreeUmph!, the tourism venue that county officials have hoped would boost their marketing of Hernando as Florida’s Adventure Coast, has again been delayed, and this time the County Commission is refusing to help.

Just days before the tree-top adventure course was slated for its grand opening in mid September, Hurricane Irma roared through Hernando County. The storm splintered trees and flattened decks and aerial pathways built to snake through the trees within the attraction.

Work to clean up the damage and obtain the final permits to open the course is ongoing, and an opening date will likely be set for later this month, officials said. But TreeUmph! owner Aaron Corr had sought a one-year deferment from the county on its lease payment.

County Administrator Len Sossamon pitched the lease assistance to commissioners last month, telling them that TreeUmph! was "in great condition’’ before the storm, which was demonstrated in photos of the site before Irma cut its destructive path through Hernando on Sept. 11.

The company has gone through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get a bridge loan. But Sossamon said the commission could help by voting to defer the $48,000 annual lease payment for a year at 2 percent interest.

The company had been making payments on the lease, Sossamon said. Payments for the first two years, as TreeUmph! sought permits and built the facility, were at a commission-approved rate of $1 per year.

Landing the adventure course had come as part of Sossamon’s job as the county’s economic development director. With an original opening date projected for late November of last year, the slowness of the progress earned Sossamon and the county some criticism through the 2016 election cycle.

Permitting problems and other issues were cited for the delays.

"I hope you know that the public is not crazy about this,’’ Commissioner Steve Champion said during the discussion of the deferred lease. "There is not an appetite for this waiving a year and getting the revenue back. I don’t know.’’

Corr said he was seeking the help to deal with the damage and so he can open strong. With the timing of the storm, he had already brought staff on board, but his business interruption insurance had not yet kicked in. Also, his other business insurance wouldn’t pay for all of the damage. He said he was willing to pay the interest on the loan.

"It helps us in the short term and gets these unexpected costs covered,’’ he said.

That didn’t sway Champion.

"Every time we turn around, it seems like there’s something with this project, and the public is not happy about it,’’ Champion said, noting that he owns a business, and "I don’t see any kind of benefit like this for my business. Government doesn’t step in and help me. I lost all kinds of money.’’

Tammy Heon, the county’s tourism development manager, showed commissioners before and after photos of the TreeUmph! site and explained that the after shots "really don’t show the level of the devastation that transpired out there.’’

She said the business was not asking for a gift, "just an extension."

Brooksville resident Shirley Miketinac said that while she wished TreeUmph! the best, she couldn’t see giving it a break on its lease. She talked about how she and her husband were cleaning up significant tree damage on their own property and that the county would "think we’re absolutely crazy’’ if they asked for financial help with their property taxes.

"This is a private business which the taxpayers have subsidized for far too long,’’ she said.

Champion made a motion to deny deferring the lease payment.

"It’s not our problem,’’ he said.

Corr said he was just trying to "get the project up and running.’’

Commissioner John Allocco said he wanted to see the business succeed, but could not grant the request.

He seconded the motion, and the commissioners voted unanimously to deny.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.