BROOKSVILLE — On the budget chopping block for the past several years, the Little Rock Cannery may have finally found a comfortable fit with a new operator.
If the lease the Hernando County Commission will consider next week is approved, the cannery would continue to operate year-round, could be upgraded to a "USDA-certified kitchen'' and could become part of an educational process for the community.
On Tuesday, the commission will consider leasing the cannery to a nonprofit group, Auro Community Cannery Inc., supported by the Auroveda Foundation of Brooksville, which is affiliated with the physician's group Access Healthcare.
If approved, it would also mean that the cannery can have a close connection with another Access program, the Auro Community Garden, LLC, which got started several years ago on 6 acres off Powell Road and U.S. 41, south of Brooksville.
Dues-paying members grow vegetables in the hydroponic garden for their own use and for sale to fund the operation of the garden. The excess is given to people in need.
Canning is becoming a "lost art,'' said Dr. John Hill, head of rehabilitation for Access Healthcare. He has spearheaded the project because he sees the garden and the cannery as a way to bring families back to nature, to teach self-sufficiency and to forward the idea of nutritious and cost-effective food preparation.
Food unifies people and these related activities, gardening and canning, could help unify the community, Hill said.
With the backing of the health care group, the cannery can thrive, he said. "I want to save it for generations and not just the next year or two years,'' Hill said.
The facility will still be used year-round as it is now. A canning supply shop could be added to help raise additional revenue. The fees may be raised or people who use the facilities might be allowed to "work off'' some of that cost by volunteering their canning skills, Hill said.
County officials had been talking to representatives of the Hernando Historical Museum Association about a possible takeover of the cannery. The group was interested in running the facility as a seasonal cannery and a museum highlighting the structure's first use, which was as a schoolhouse.
For the past two years, as the County Commission considered shuttering the cannery, an anonymous donor stepped up to pay to keep it open. But this year there was no donation.
Hill said of the previous offers to take over the cannery —one from a veterinarian and the museum association's offer this year — "none of them seemed to have the right chemistry.''
Participants in the community garden began to talk about how the cannery would dovetail nicely with what they were trying to do teaching the community about wholesome food and being self-sustaining, said Jean Rags, the county's community development director.
"People could not only learn how to grow vegetables and how to care for them, but they could work up to growing them on their own, harvesting them and going up to the cannery to preserve them,'' she said.
Auro Community Cannery would work toward getting the facility established as a certified kitchen, which would allow enterprising users of the facilities to sell their canned goods, Rags said. And without the county's involvement, the organization also agreed to negotiate with and possibly continue to employ longtime cannery supervisor Flossie Raines.
Hill said he wants her to stay on and she is interested. The understanding would have to be that the pay would not be at the same level it had been and she would no longer get county benefits.
The nonprofit would budget $50,000 annually to run the cannery, which is about what it has cost in the past, would charge a fee for use of the facilities and would also be able to collect tax-deductible donations, Rags said.
As the plan unfolded and Rags realized that the fit with the Auro Community Cannery was better than with the museum, she contacted the museum association. The museum group's board members agreed to step back and allow the new plan to move forward, but they did ask for first right of refusal if the nonprofit deal fell through. Rags said she agreed.
Commissioners will consider a $1-a-year lease with the nonprofit and, in 21 months, will consider turning over the facility entirely to the group.
The paperwork has been filed to possibly include the cannery on the National Register of Historic Places and the Hill's group has agreed to follow whatever preservation restrictions that designation includes.
Rags said there has been a lot of enthusiasm about how the cannery fits in with Access Healthcare's overall business plan to promote a healthy lifestyle.
"From seed to can, maybe it will be a new trend,'' Rags said. Really, she said, it is more of a throwback to the past, maybe a welcome one when more people are trying to get by on less.
"It's interesting, in these economic times, we tend to revert back to a simpler life,'' Rags said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.