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  1. Hernando

Here's who could be next to run Hernando's historic Chinsegut Hill

BROOKSVILLE — More than a month after the group that ran the Chinsegut Hill Retreat dissolved, the historic site and event space is still closed for repairs and managed by Hernando County, which took over when the nonprofit Friends of Chinsegut Hill pulled out.

But now the retreat's uncertain future is looking a little less hazy: County Administrator Jeff Rogers has told county commissioners that several parties have expressed interest in taking over operations at Chinsegut. And in an interview last week, he named names.

Among the people and groups Rogers said could be next to operate the site: local doctor and Access Health Care founder Pariksith Singh; economically focused nonprofit Mid Florida Community Services; and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Others have reached out as well, Rogers said, and he still welcomes still more to throw their hats in the ring. He hasn't yet brought any names to county commissioners for public discussion, but he said the county could contract with multiple parties to handle operations.

"The end solution here could not be one — not 'or,' but 'and,'" he said. "It's really exciting to me, because there's a lot of interest."

Featuring a manner house set atop a 269-foot hill, Chinsegut has gone from an 1850s sugar-and-corn plantation to a museum and overnight retreat aiming to draw weddings and corporate functions. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Singh founded Access Health Care in 2001 in Spring Hill. It's since expanded to more than 1,000 employees at more than 150 locations, according to its website. Singh said he became interested in Chinsegut earlier this year after founding the Tampa Bay Literary Society, a creative-arts organization. He thought the group could have events there, but he had trouble getting anyone from the retreat on the phone.

When he heard of the county's search for a new operator, he envisioned Chinsegut Hill as a hub of arts, culture and history.

"We have so much heritage here," he said, "but we are not really optimizing it."

Were the county interested, he said, operating the site would become a project of his philanthropic Auroveda Foundation.

Mid Florida Community Services, which aims to reduce poverty and aid low-income people, runs transportation and food programs and the Children's Advocacy Center of Hernando, among others. CEO Michael Georgini said he'd reached out to Rogers about Chinsegut. He sees the property as a "perpetual fundraiser" for the organization and as a necessary asset to preserve for the community.
"I just feel like history is that important," said Georgini, a sixth-generation Floridian and Sumter County native. "If it's done, it's going to be done for the people of Hernando."

He'd like to increase marketing for Chinsegut and have more events there in the summer, once the manor house's troublesome air conditioning is fixed for good. He didn't want to speak too specifically about his plans, he said, but he noted that profits from rentals and tours would go back into local concerns via Mid Florida Community Services' work.

Both Singh and Georgini said they'd be open to collaborating with other parties to operate the site.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission already operates the nearby Chinsegut Conservation Center. Through a spokesperson, the agency said it "would intend to remain a partner" with the retreat on educational projects but had "not received any official request from the county to assume the lease for the property and (has) no information to share." The county itself holds the lease for the land and in the past has maintained the lease while contracting out operations duties.

Rogers said the Commission had expressed interest, but as far as he knew, was still having internal discussions about the prospect of operating the retreat.

Whatever happens, he said, he hopes for Chinsegut to reopen to the public by the end of September. Repairs to the air conditioning are underway, and the county is working with Florida A&M University, which has property nearby, to increase internet access in the area. That would benefit guests at the retreat, operators at Chinsegut and those doing fieldwork for the university nearby.

Rogers expects that the contract will go to one of the parties reaching out to him, he said, and he doesn't plan to initiate an open-bid process.

"I feel very confident we're going to come up with a solution here," he said. "They're coming to us. I don't have to go to them."

Contact Jack Evans at Follow @JackHEvans.