Hernando County commissioners approved a plan Tuesday to negotiate a multi-year lease agreement with the state that would keep the 164-year-old Chinsegut Hill manor house and its surrounding grounds in public hands rather than put the property up for sale to a private interest.
Economic development manager Mike McHugh recommended that the county propose an initial five-year lease with additional options that would enable local nonprofit groups to work toward restoring the historic landmark, making it marketable as an environmental education center and tourist destination.
For Christie Anderberg, a founder of Friends of Chinsegut Hill, the group that has been working toward finding a benefactor to support the preservation effort, it was welcome news.
"We're breathing easier now," Anderberg said. "It's been a long time since we've felt as positive about our chances. This will be good for the community."
With an approaching deadline with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the threat of having the 114-acre facility placed on the DEP's surplus lands list, Anderberg and members of her group had been scrambling, trying to find a local entity willing to offer help. The group recently received a $26,000 state historic matching grant to pay for roof and structural repairs to the edifice. However, the money can be used only if the Friends group finds a government partner to secure a lease on the property.
County commissioners agreed two weeks ago to allow McHugh to explore the county's options to lease the facility and work with the Friends on developing a budget to operate the manor house and surrounding buildings.
Anderberg said that a state historic building expert who recently visited the facility indicated that even though some areas of the manor house have been damaged from roof leaks, the overall structure is in good condition. She said that her group, which has already raised $27,000 in private donations toward restoration, is confident it can obtain more contributions once a long-term lease has been secured.
"The community recognizes that we have a gem in our midst," Anderberg said. "They are anxious to continue to support it as long as they see hope for the future."
When the University of South Florida announced in 2009 that it was abandoning its lease after 40 years of using the facility as a retreat and conference center, the Friends helped put together a proposal that included support from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the county Tourist Development Council and the Hernando Historical Museum Association.
However, those plans fell through after the county pulled out, leaving the preservation group to go it alone.
Anderberg said that state land leases to other government entities typically are less that $300 annually. She said her group would be willing to reimburse the county for the fee.
Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he hoped that the commission's backing of the facility would silence naysayers who have criticized the county's lack of involvement.
"This gives us a chance to show what we can do, and what we can do in the future," Dukes said.
McHugh said he expects to present the final lease agreement to the commission on Jan. 8.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.