When it comes to community institutions, the Little Rock Cannery has long been a two-for-one deal.
There's the place itself, of course, a lovely little stone-and-mortar monument to the way people around here looked after one another in hard times. It was built by local farmers as a school through the Depression-era Works Project Administration and refitted as a public cannery to help subsistence farmers and gardeners get through the recession of the mid 1970s.
Then there was the woman who ran the cannery as a county employee for nearly 20 years, Flossie Raines.
Definitely, nobody knew as much about canning as Raines did. Maybe no other public employee worked as hard and as pleasantly. She was a soft-spoken authority figure with a pot scrubber in her hand and beads of sweat on her forehead.
But taxpayers long ago made it clear they didn't think the cannery — even one that charms visitors from all over the Tampa Bay area, even one that inspired a copycat, the Glass Rooster Cannery in Ohio — deserved their cash. And the anonymous donor who paid most of its budget the previous two years wasn't willing to do it again.
So, this fiscal year the county turned it over to a nonprofit organization, Auro Community Cannery, which is backed by Access Healthcare.
Auro wanted to keep Raines on, but couldn't pay as well as the county or provide the same benefits, said new manager David Bahr — and she turned down the offer.
Actually, it's a little more complicated, Raines said. Auro first offered $10 an hour, which she said was too low. It then came back with an offer of $15 an hour, but withdrew it before she could fill out her application.
"I drive by the cannery and I can't even look at it anymore," she said. "It's like breaking up with an old boyfriend. I just want to put it behind me."
So, no matter how her departure played out, it's a shame.
When Raines left, so did a majority of the most avid canners, which may be an even bigger shame.
Bahr, 61, makes fresh muffins most mornings. When I arrived at the cannery in northern Hernando County on Tuesday, there had been no takers, and Bahr sat by the phone, looking a little like the forlorn repairman in the old Maytag commercials.
Since the cannery reopened a month ago, only eight customers have shown up to use it, he said. Half paid the new $5 daily fee, meaning only four laid out the $50 for an annual pass.
The pass costs twice as much as last year, which is one reason some of the old canners have stayed away. Mostly, though, it's out of loyalty to Raines, which even she says is counterproductive.
"I'm not trying to lead them away," she said. "I'm trying to encourage them to go back."
So, listen to her, you canners. First of all, we live in stingy times. When it comes to the extras that make this a better place to live, the people who care most about them, the ones who recognize their value, are the ones who have to pay. Otherwise, the extras go away.
Secondly, I get the feeling that even without Raines, the cannery is in good hands.
Bahr, 61, who worked with an association for developmentally disabled adults in upstate New York, is a trained biologist, avid cook and fairly experienced canner himself.
He recently got a phone installed — the number is (352) 799-4226 — which should boost the anemic user numbers. He's planted herbs on the cannery's grounds and soon hopes to put a store in the half of the cannery building that used to serve as a library, so newcomers can get started right away.
The cannery is tied in with the Auro Community Garden, a good, economical source of fresh produce. And families that can't come up with the annual fee can pay over time or make it up in volunteer hours.
Nobody is turned away, in other words, which means the cannery is carrying on its longtime, noble mission of helping people out.
So, mourn the departure of Flossie Raines. She deserves it. Just don't forget there's another institution out there that can still be saved.