BROOKSVILLE — In a last-ditch effort to secure Chinsegut Hill as a public resource and reopen the manor house, the Friends of Chinsegut Hill announced an aggressive fundraising drive Thursday calling it "Save the Hill.''
Within the next 30 days, the organization needs to raise $75,000 to match a potential private foundation donation that would finally move management of the property to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which also manages the adjacent nature and environmental education center.
The Chinsegut Hill property, consisting of the manor house, retreat and conference center facilities, sits on just more than 114 acres about 6 miles north of Brooksville.
In an open letter, Friends president Jan Knowles details her organization's goal in the fundraising effort as "a fully restored and financially sustainable manor house and meeting facility that is a well-known tourist destination, returning economic benefits to the community and serving current and future generations with engaging, educational programs about the cultural and natural history of the area.''
The manor house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was run for 40 years by the University of South Florida as a conference center. Two years ago, the school announced it could no long continue the arrangement and the state-owned property was placed on the state's surplus property list.
That is when the FWC started working toward a management plan with hoped-for assistance from Hernando County through the county's Tourist Development Council and the Hernando Historical Museum Association.
But in February, the TDC broke off negotiations with the FWC. In private talks with individual county commissioners, tourism coordinator Tammy Heon discussed the partnership but commissioners voiced too many concerns to move forward with the idea.
The group has until May 13 to raise the funds needed to match the grant. If that doesn't happen, "the FWC will not be able to accept the lease and the Hill will be back on the surplus property list, with uncertain public access or worse yet, vulnerable to private sale,'' Knowles wrote.
In a news release late Thursday, Knowles was quoted as saying, "FWC hasn't given up on its efforts to preserve Chinsegut Hill. The vision of folding this historic property in with the WEA (Wildlife and Environmental Area) meshes perfectly with the goals of the Friends of Chinsegut Hill.
"The manor house and its surrounding grounds offer an incredible glimpse into the past lives of Hernando County residents,'' she said.
To potential donors, she explained that the funds would be used to staff, operate, maintain, repair, upgrade and improve educational programs. "Once up and running, the management of Chinsegut Hill is well situated to be self-supporting,'' Knowles wrote.
Donations will be placed in a restricted account until the private foundation commits to matching the donations. If the goal is not met, the donated funds will be returned in full.
The foundation that is interested in matching money is a family group that has visited the Hill, but they wanted to see local support for the project.
"Public access through FWC to the manor house after being closed to the public for 40 plus years would be ideal,'' Knowles said. "It's a step back in time to see its wrap-around verandas and porch with swings and rockers . . . a perfect location to view a spectacular sunset across the sweeping lawns and adjacent fields.''
Work on constructing the manor house began in the 1940s on a hill considered to be one of the highest in Florida. One of the last plantation houses still in existence in the state, the original name for the point was Tiger Tail Hill.
In 1904, when Chicago residents Raymond and Margaret Drier Robins bought the property, they reportedly named it Chinsegut Hill, an Inuit word meaning "a place where lost things are found."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.