Sunday, May 20, 2018
Business

Chinsegut is an asset in need of some help

Maybe you, like me, were under the impression that Chinsegut Hill was an asset, a beautiful and historic spot of statewide significance, a potential tourist draw and money-maker.

No, apparently, it's nothing but a hot potato to be passed from one public agency to another. Maybe, even worse, it's just plain useless. That's certainly the implication of calling the hill's 114 acres — the site of the 163-year-old Chinsegut manor house and surrounding cabins — "surplus" property, a state designation that could eventually allow it to be sold to a private developer.

Though it's not at that point yet, recent events are bringing it closer than ever.

The hill's real problems started in the spring of 2009, when the University of South Florida, which had rented the property for decades, announced it could no longer afford to maintain it and wanted out of its lease.

The assumption was that the property would be snapped up by a public agency, and before too long a couple of them had stepped forward.

The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agreed to manage the land, Hernando County would rent out the cabins, and a private group, the Hernando Historical Museum Association, would run the manor house as a museum.

The county was the first public agency to pass on its responsibility for the property, saying last March that it didn't have the money to run the cabins (even though former tourism development director Sue Rupe was convinced that with a small investment in marketing the cabins could easily make money.)

When the county withdrew, "the agreement basically fell apart," said Jerrie Lindsey, director of the wildlife commission's office of recreational services, which is another way of saying the wildlife commission backed out, too.

"We are a very lean organization," Lindsey said. "We're not staffed to take on something like that by ourselves."

In November, the nonprofit Friends of Chinsegut Hill applied for a grant of about $43,000 from the state Division of Historical Resources and, while it was at it, asked if the agency might be interested in assuming control of the property.

No way, said director Robert Bendus, in a Dec. 20 letter to the state agency that runs the surplus lands program.

"Although Division staff and I have been greatly impressed by the passion and the commitment of the (Friends), current budgetary issues prevent us from partnering with them at this time," Bendus wrote.

With that, Friends board member Christie Anderberg made one more plea to USF to continue to lease the property from the state and sublease it to Friends with the understanding that her group, and possibly Florida Audubon, would take care of the hill.

USF treated her request as if it were radioactive, firing back an email on Dec. 20 to say the university "is in not a position to sublease the Chinsegut Hill property. We are going to work with the Division of State Land to transfer this lease back to the state."

So, the Friends of Chinsegut can't find a single state agency willing to be, generically speaking, a friend of Chinsegut.

On top of that, neither USF, which is still the leaseholder, or the state, which is the owner of the hill, will sign the grant application with Friends, which means the future of the grant is now uncertain.

I only wish I could say the same of the manor house. The grant was supposed to pay for basic repairs, such as a new roof. If Friends can't get money from the grant or some other source, the house will — very certainly — deteriorate to the point where the cost of repair will become even more discouraging to any group that might want to take it over.

One hopeful sign, Bendus said, is that Friends "has a great plan to generate income and connect people to that site. They can do it with just a little bit of help."

From us, ultimately.

We have to be willing to adequately fund environmental and historic preservation because these agencies are passing on Chinsegut for a reason. They are short of funds. They don't have the money to make our communities more respectful of history, more attractive to visitors and outside investors.

Because people like Anderberg are right. Chinsegut really is an asset, a potentially great one.

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