BROOKSVILLE — In the months before her nonprofit board suddenly folded, the executive director of Hernando County’s most prominent historical and tourism site offered promising updates.
Chinsegut Hill Retreat would be busy until early June, Melissa Kehler told the county Tourist Development Council in February, according to meeting minutes. A new development coordinator was bringing in revenue. Easter Sunday would include a sunrise mass and brunch with a carving station. And the nonprofit she worked for, Friends of Chinsegut Hill, had applied for a $5,000 Visit Florida grant for billboards.
A high point in a mostly flat state, the 269-foot hill is topped by a manor house listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Chinsegut began in the 1850s as a sugar and corn plantation and has become a museum and overnight retreat aiming to draw weddings and corporate functions. In 2016, a Tampa Bay Times columnist said Chinsegut was "finally on track to realize its potential as Hernando County's defining historical landmark."
But in the minutes of a March Tourist Development Council meeting, the council director hinted at impending trouble at the site: "Tammy Heon stated that we may need to aid Chinsegut Hill."
On May 31, after years of documented financial struggles, the Friends of Chinsegut Hill voted to dissolve, according to public records. The Friends had operated the facility since 2008, and the nonprofit continued to do so when the county leased the property from the state in 2013.
The dissolution thrust responsibility for the property into the hands of the county, which is in the midst of its own funding shortfall.
The same day, the county announced that Chinsegut Hill would close for the summer for water tank and air conditioning maintenance.
Hernando County Administrator Jeff Rogers said the closure and some of the maintenance were planned months in advance. The county will maintain Chinsegut, at least in the short term, he said, and will manage six previously scheduled events over the summer using county staffers and temporary outside hires.
The facility will reopen in the fall, Rogers said. But who will be running it is unclear. Rogers said the county sees Chinsegut as a "significant asset" and does not plan to give up the property.
"It's a big part of the historic nature of the city of Brooksville," he said. "We're invested in managing it and not returning it to the state."
The Friends group ran the retreat with money it took in from bookings, along with help from the county. Since 2016, Hernando County has given Chinsegut about $125,000 in grants, tourist development funds, maintenance work and other services. The Tourist Development Council also pays $2,500 to $3,000 annually in advertising for Chinsegut, a county spokesperson said, and about $36,750 annually for the property's insurance.
In the 2018 fiscal year, the Friends anticipated nearly $474,000 in revenue and $340,000 in expenses, according to documents from late 2017. However, federal tax forms show the nonprofit lost money in earlier years — $36,000 in 2016, nearly $85,000 in 2015 and more than $150,000 in 2014.
Meanwhile, the county faces a general fund deficit of between $9 and $11 million, and commissioners said it'll take time to figure out what happens next.
County Commissioner John Allocco, who served until last year as the commission's liaison to the Friends of Chinsegut Hill, said the county may have to give the property back to the state if it can't find another group to manage it.
County Commissioner John Mitten, the current liaison, said county officials need time to explore their options. The question of who should run Chinsegut, he said, should be dictated by what makes the most sense for the property's well-being.
"I am not as insistent upon it being a county-run or a state-run or a third-party run (site), as long as long-term, we have it preserved," he said.
Circumstances behind the Friends of Chinsegut Hill decision to dissolve remain unclear. Friends president Eric Kessel did not respond to voicemails left by a Times reporter.
But two documents filed last summer with the Florida Department of State show a sudden drop-off of leadership. An Aug. 29, 2018, report listed 10 officers and directors, including Kessel, Kehler and Allocco. By a Sept. 13 report, only Kessel and Kehler remained. Kehler's contract expired in May, Heon said.
The tourism director noted the Friends’ history of financial struggles, but said reports early this year suggested the nonprofit was turning a corner. However, the manor house's air conditioning system has been in a constant cycle of failure and repair since its installation five years ago, she said, driving up maintenance costs and halting some of Chinsegut’s key money-makers.
"That was a real problem," Heon said. "They couldn't give tours. They couldn't have events in the manor house proper."
It became clear last week that the manor house would have to close for the summer because it would be too hot to safely have patrons inside, Heon said, and the nonprofit decided its finances couldn’t weather the season.
Allocco criticized previous county commissioners for a lack of oversight on the Friends. Heon and Mitten praised the Friends' hard work and passion, but Mitten cited turnover on its board of directors and a series of unsuccessful financial strategies in the realization that "this (was) not sustainable."
"The problem is that they knew there were trouble, and they were trying to reorganize," said County Commissioner Steve Champion. "But obviously, they gave up."
Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.
Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans.