Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

Steinle: A solid future for Palm Harbor's historic White Chapel

In Palm Harbor, which as recently as the 1960s was mostly orange groves and farms but now bustles with some 65,000 people, there aren't a lot of historic landmarks left.

A 1921 hurricane damaged the landscape and some of the few buildings there at the time. The community's most noteworthy building, the multistory brick Southern College administration building, burned in 1921. A few historic structures survive, mostly clustered in downtown Palm Harbor, but many fell to the persistent march of new subdivisions and office buildings.

That's why the White Chapel is so precious. Built in 1924, the little white church at 1190 Georgia Ave. has withstood storms, development and, at times, inattention. But now, locals who love it and the county government that owns it have found what seems to be a way to ensure it will survive.

Pinellas County bought the chapel in 1999 and workers lovingly restored it, polishing the heart of pine floors until they shone and cleaning and preserving the stained-glass windows, readying it for its next life as a wedding venue. Next door, the county built Harbor Hall for wedding receptions and meetings. In 2002, the county leased the buildings for $1 a year to the not-for-profit Old Palm Harbor Main Street Association, which maintained and operated them for weddings and meetings. Many young couples have chosen to launch their futures together there.

But after termites showed up in the chapel, the association realized it could not afford the financial burden of maintaining the old building. The association had to pull out.

Two weeks ago, the Pinellas County Commission approved a new five-year renewable lease of the two buildings to the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency. Unlike the Main Street Association, PHCSA is not a struggling nonprofit but a tax-supported government board. Using small library and recreation taxes collected in the unincorporated Palm Harbor and East Lake areas, PHCSA oversees the Palm Harbor recreation department and library, the East Lake library and, soon, the East Lake Youth Sports Complex. A representative of each of those groups serves on the agency's board, along with several members appointed by the County Commission.

Under the new lease, PHCSA's recreation department will manage both Harbor Hall and the White Chapel, now known as the Reba Sutton White Chapel for the late Palm Harbor resident who was its protector for years. But the county government, with its greater resources, will assume responsibility for maintaining the structural elements of the chapel to ensure that the building doesn't deteriorate for lack of funds.

It is often a challenge to figure out how to save historic buildings, and it isn't unusual for nonprofits that have their hearts in the right place but little money in the cash box to have to give up the effort.

But with the new lease arrangement, there is finally, for the first time, a solid, well-financed, long-term plan for preserving the White Chapel in a part of the county that has too few historic treasures left.

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