Sunday, May 20, 2018
News Roundup

Dewitt: Is the Little Rock Cannery worth saving?

It's a pun so obvious that nobody, and I mean nobody, can resist it.

For years, the regulars at the Little Rock Cannery sported "I can!" T-shirts and bumper stickers.

A temporarily postponed fundraiser/open house included this slogan: "Yes, we can!"

That's also the favorite rallying cry of its main advocate on the Hernando County Commission, Diane Rowden.

But all of the cannery's ups and downs since 2009 — the county canceling funding; private interests stepping in to keep it going and, ultimately, stepping out; the flagging use among folks who do, in fact, can — raise an obvious question:

Can we really?

The most recent downer came with the approach of Oct. 1 and the end of the county's two-year lease with the nonprofit Auroveda Foundation.

The group, which has been paying to keep the cannery open since 2011, wanted to buy the historic building north of Brooksville. The county said it wasn't for sale and, if it were, it would have to go to the highest bidder.

Auroveda responded by closing the cannery last week and removing the supplies and equipment it had bought, leaving the future of the spot in doubt. The most worrying fact came from the people who managed the cannery for Auroveda — David Bahr, who had to step down in May for health reasons, and his replacement, Susie Colwell.

For years, we'd heard of the high demand at the cannery; the few times I used it, I had to fight for counter space.

But the number of visitors in two years is down. And the summer, always a slow time for canners in Florida, was particularly slow this year. Only a few canners used the facility each month, Colwell said.

Maybe the reason is simple. When the county stopped running the cannery, so did longtime manager Flossie Raines, who was almost as much of a fixture as the Depression-era stone building, a former school built by the Work Projects Administration.

Or maybe, as Bahr believes, more people are canning at home, possibly because of the availability of more convenient sterilizing equipment. Stores like Walmart and Save-A-Lot still sell canning jars and other supplies, he said, but fewer people bring them to cannery.

So is it really worth the community effort to keep the cannery going?

Yes, because more people, and a wider variety of people, recognize its value in building community, promoting local agriculture and preserving history. Also, it's a part of Hernando's character, and people jut plain like it.

The County Commission voted unanimously to fund the cannery so it can reopen in October and remain open through January. The idea is that the extra time might give this year's Leadership Hernando class a chance to figure out how to keep it going.

It might be by appointment only, Bahr said, and the supervisors walking newcomers through the process might have to be volunteers rather than paid staffers.

Rowden said federal grants might be available. A representative of Leadership Hernando said she will advocate that the group explore options — including allying with groups like the Florida Blueberry Growers Association — to keep it up and running.

I hope she can.

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