BROOKSVILLE — Satisfied that the effort is looking favorable to keep historic Chinsegut Hill and its surrounding 114 acres in public hands, Hernando County commissioners gave the go-ahead Tuesday for economic development manager Mike McHugh to continue lease negotiations with the state.
In his presentation to the commission, McHugh said that while progress has been slower than he had hoped because of delays during the holiday season, a proposal to obtain a five-year lease through the state Department of Environmental Protection is inching closer to reality.
As for the facility itself, McHugh had mixed reviews. An initial inspection by county staffers of the 164-year-old manor house revealed moderate damage, mostly due to neglect and a leaking roof. Any structural analysis of the edifice would have to be done by someone more familiar with historic buildings, he said.
However, McHugh said that most of the surrounding outbuildings — including cabins, a conference room and a kitchen built during the 1980s — are in "reasonably good shape" and could be readied for use fairly quickly.
McHugh said his staff has also been busy pulling together a consortium that includes mostly nonprofit groups that are willing to raise funds and volunteer support.
"We want to have a lot of people pulling on this rope," McHugh said.
Two months ago, the Friends of Chinsegut Hill, the grass roots nonprofit group that has raised $27,000 toward renovation of the facility north of Brooksville, had only the faintest hope that such a deal would ever be made. Just days away from a deadline that likely would have resulted in the facility being put up for sale, the group made a last-ditch appeal for help from the county.
"We're encouraged by what has been happening," Friends founding member Christie Anderberg said Tuesday. "Finally, we're seeing more positive things happening instead of negative things."
However, commissioners made it clear that they want more complete answers on the overall condition of the manor house, which has been in a state of neglect ever since the University of South Florida abandoned its lease with the state in 2009.
Anderberg said that as far as she was aware, the last structural inspection of the manor house was in 1991, during the time USF occupied the building. If necessary, she said, her group is prepared to pay for any services needed to secure a sublease agreement with the county.
In addition to money raised from private donors, the Friends organization also managed to secure a $26,000 state historic matching grant to pay for roof and structural repairs to the edifice. Anderberg said that additional state grant money will likely follow once a sublease agreement with the county can be drawn up.
By backing the lease plan, Anderberg said, the county is helping to pave the way for a restoration effort her organization has been championing for nearly three years. Once a lease is secured, the Friends group plans to work quickly toward making the facility and its surrounding grounds operable so that it can begin earning income from hosting events such as education retreats, art shows and weddings.
"It's been a long time since we've been able to host anything that the public can attend," Anderberg said. "It's frustrating because getting people to come out to see and experience the manor house and the grounds is key to getting them to support it."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.