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Chinsegut group loses out on grant for historic Hernando site, but hope remains

BROOKSVILLE — A nonprofit group trying to save one of Hernando County's oldest landmarks has run into another roadblock after its request for a $30,000 matching grant was denied by the state Division of Historical Resources.

The loss of the grant further dampened the spirits of the Friends of Chinsegut Hill, which has lobbied for more than two years to repair the 164-year-old Chinsegut manor house and keep the structure and its surrounding cabins, on 114 acres north of Brooksville, in public hands rather than see it sold to a private entity.

Christie Anderberg, spokeswoman for the Friends, said the grant, which was submitted in November, just missed the cut and ended up 32nd on a list of 31 funded grants.

"It just wasn't meant to be this time," Anderberg said. "But we're hopeful that it's a good sign that we'll win it next time."

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 and retreat. But in 2009, the university announced it could no long continue the arrangement, and the property was placed on the state's surplus property list.

That prompted a spin-off group from the Hernando Historical Society to take action to find a way to restore the manor house and turn it into a meeting facility and education center, with the goal of finding another public agency to operate it.

Members petitioned the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which manages the adjacent nature and environmental education center, to consider working toward a management plan with assistance from the Hernando County Tourist Development Council.

But that plan never took off. Although the Friends managed to raise about $15,000 in private donations toward the effort last year, the FWC balked, saying that it didn't have the resources to run the center.

Since then, the preservation group has looked at several other options, including convincing USF College of Arts and Science director Brent Smith to keep the facility for use as an academic resource center.

Talks seemed fruitful at first. However, when Smith applied for funding, he said he too was turned down.

"I don't think anyone disagreed that it wouldn't be an asset to the university," Smith said. "The problem is simply one of resources. There's just no money for it right now."

For now, the landmark remains under the authority of USF, which is still the leaseholder. Although the university recently spent $5,000 to fix the facility's air conditioning system and perform some minor repairs, major problems, such as a leaking roof and rotting window frames, continue to cause damage to the building's interior.

Friends of Chinsegut Hill president Jan Knowles said that allowing the building to continue to deteriorate doesn't make sense.

"It just seems a shame to let it get to the point where no one will want it," Knowles said. "We have a solid plan that we think will work. We have backing from the community. But unfortunately we can't do this alone."

Meanwhile, Knowles said she hasn't given up hope. She and Anderberg are planning to apply again for a state preservation grant before the June 29 deadline. And talks with agencies that might be able to manage the property will continue.

"If there's a stone that's not been turned over," Knowles said, "we'll find it."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@tampabay.com.

Chinsegut group loses out on grant for historic Hernando site, but hope remains 05/15/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 15, 2012 5:32pm]
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