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Chinsegut Hill's fate kept from public eye

Chinsegut Hill is a can't-miss landmark— one of the highest points in peninsular Florida, site of the county's only true antebellum mansion, the former home of nationally known political activists Raymond and Margaret Robins.

But it isn't your fault that you've never strolled its oak-shaded grounds, or taken in the view of nearby Lake Lindsey from one of its gazebos, or seen the rooms where the Robinses entertained the likes of Thomas Edison.

See, you're not welcome. Though the property has been owned by either the federal or state government since 1932, it's not open to the public.

Not only are you barred from the place — so, of course, are potential out-of-town visitors. That means they won't be stopping in Brooksville to drop a few bucks in a restaurant or at the Saturday farmer's market. They certainly won't be going back home to tell friends that, really, you wouldn't believe what a gorgeous weekend they had in Hernando County.

And that isn't going to happen any time soon because the county Tourist Development Council recently decided to pull out of a nearly two-year-old agreement with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

If you remember, FWC agreed to take over the management of the property when its longtime tenant, the University of South Florida, said in 2009 it could no longer afford to keep it up. The Hernando Historical Museum Association was to run the Manor House as a museum. The county would manage the adjacent cabins.

Though the state is scrambling to find some agency to take over the county's role (and county business development manager Mike McHugh is giving lip service about the county helping any way it can) the whole arrangement is now in jeopardy.

I should clarify: the decision wasn't entirely the TDC's.

In February, the council voted to break off negotiations with FWC. Over the next month, Tourist Development Council coordinator Tammy Heon discussed the matter with each county commissioner, one-on-one.

Most of them said they didn't want to be in the lodging business, even with a private company doing the day-to-day stuff, McHugh said. They worried about start-up costs and a contract that promised too many risks and too little reward.

She relayed all this to the TDC at last week's meeting and basically informed them the county was pulling out.

This stinks for three reasons. First, if commissioners want to get involved, to make a big-picture decision about the government's role in economic development and the future of a publicly owned jewel, they better do it in public.

Two, somebody should have said something a long time ago — before FWC invested nearly two years and untold hours of staff time trying to finalize the deal.

Three, jobs are at stake. This could have been a big, desperately needed boost to the economy. Without even knowing the costs — and former public tourism chief Sue Rupe said that long-term, revenue from the cabins should cover expenses — the county pulled out.

Yes, we're all aware of the dire budget picture. Maybe this was the right decision. But we don't know because we didn't get to see a vote. Just as we can't see a beautiful, historic spot taxpayers have owned for nearly 80 years.

Chinsegut Hill's fate kept from public eye 03/29/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 29, 2011 8:31pm]
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