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Hernando commission hopes long-term lease will secure Chinsegut’s future

By Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writer
Gabriella Angotti-Jones | Times Hernando County has signed a 50-year lease with the state for the property at Chinsegut Hill, including the historic manor house.

BROOKSVILLE — Interested in securing the historic site for the long term, the Hernando County Commission voted this week to lease the Chinsegut Hill property from the state for the next 50 years.

Commissioners also agreed to work with the local legislative delegation to possibly gain ownership of the land, which includes the historic Chinsegut manor house, cabins and picturesque grounds north of Brooksville.

The county’s previous lease with the state was for just five years. But during a discussion Tuesday, commissioners and county staffers spoke about how a longer-term arrangement, mentioned by the state, might help the county secure grants for the property.

Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, who grew up in Hernando County, said he wanted to see a long-term commitment to the property, which has a history entwined with county’s pioneers.

"It’s a huge part of the beginning of the county,’’ Dukes said. "This is the kind of thing that government should do, even if people don’t all appreciate it, for the sake of our heritage.’’

Commissioner Steve Champion said the county should just buy the property. But when county officials made that pitch, they were informed that the state Department of Environmental Protection couldn’t give Chinsegut to the county, though the Legislature could.

"It’s really Hernando County’s jewel,’’ Champion said. "It should be ours.’’

Once the lease is fully executed with the state, the commission will be asked for another five-year operating license by the Friends of Chinsegut Hill, the nonprofit organization that runs the facility, its tour operation, gift shop, cabins and other activities. That request is expected to come before the commission before the end of the year, and commissioners seemed anxious to approve it.

"Nice job so far,’’ Champion said of the efforts of the Friends group.

"You guys have come a long way,’’ said Commissioner Nick Nicholson. "You guys should be commended.’’

In May 2013, the County Commission agreed to lease the historic Chinsegut Hill property from the state and grant the Friends of Chinsegut Hill the license to run the property. The state awarded the group a $1.5 million historic preservation grant that same year, and work to restore the manor house began several months later.

But the road has been challenging.

According to the executive summary provided to commissioners, "the Friends lacked expertise to adequately oversee the restoration of the Manor House and mistakes were made, including the hiring of a contractor and an executive director that lacked the experience and capacity to successfully complete the restoration on time and budget.’’

The Friends also purchased an overpriced air-cooling system that never worked, failed to wisely appropriate for salaries and took an "ill-advised balloon loan’’ to shore up the shortfall, the summary states.

In taking stock of the needs at Chinsegut, the county’s facilities manager has examined the property extensively. The result is a list of $702,000 worth of upgrades, repairs and improvements by 2020-21.

While the financial difficulties seem daunting, the summary of Chinsegut’s new revenue-producing programs and marketing efforts paints an optimistic picture of the property’s potential.

Working with the county’s tourism office two years ago, the Friends began marketing the property to local churches, an effort that drummed up interest for 10 retreats. And recently, the public luncheon schedule has been expanded, bringing in a variety of visitors who have joined the Friends and spread the news about the property’s availability as a venue for retreats, reunions, weddings and individual stays in the cabins.

Seeking grants, building partnerships and capitalizing on marketing opportunities are ways the Friends list as continuing to build on the property’s ability to sustain itself financially.

With some help from the county for the needed capital improvements, "we believe we will be able to stabilize the organization financially and ensure the long-term success of Chinsegut Hill as a historical attraction and tourism destination and the jewel of Hernando County,’’ according to the executive summary.

County Administrator Len Sossamon said the county was looking at potentially offering a county maintenance staff person to help at the site. He acknowledged there are many needs, but having the long-term lease will help with the costs of improvements over time, he said. He also noted that philanthropic interests that provide grants will find the long-term nature of the county’s commitment attractive.

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