In an era when job creation tops all other concerns, the Hernando County Commission last week correctly put preservation over potential commerce. Commissioners unanimously offered a lifeline to the 164-year-old Chinsegut Hill Manor House, agreeing to seek to lease the property from the state of Florida.
The Department of Environmental Protection earlier deemed the manor house and its surrounding 114 acres as surplus property and available for acquisition. Allowing this public treasure to languish in an uncertain fate or worse, potentially slip into a private development, would have been unconscionable.
Instead, the Historic Hernando Preservation Society, Friends of Chinsegut Hill, and now the county envision a chance to turn the antebellum plantation home and nearby cabins into a regional showpiece. The idea is to market the property as a site for business conferences, weddings, retreats or educational seminars. It is a grand idea that capitalizes on the history of the manor house and the unspoiled beauty of its surroundings.
Chinsegut Hill came into public ownership during the Great Depression when the 2,080-acre plantation was donated to the federal government and became an agricultural research facility. The U.S. Department of Agriculture leased the manor house and surrounding land to the University of Florida in the 1950s and the University of South Florida acquired it a few years later and used the property for the next 40 years as a retreat and conference center. But USF announced it wanted to escape the lease in 2009, a prior opportunity to keep the site in public hands fell apart in 2011 and the federal government closed the agriculture station earlier this year.
This latest preservation effort gained a strong sense of urgency when the state announced its intentions to seek private buyers for the property. The community and county response are appropriate, but there still are details to be settled.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes previously told the Friends of the Chinsegut Hill that county involvement should be considered a tool, but not a source of money. That reluctance is understandable considering the county government's cash-strapped general fund and looming 2014 deficit.
So far, the offer from the county to negotiate a state lease comes with no financial commitment, making it easier for the commission to endorse the proposal. If future subsidies are required, at least there is a logical funding source — tourist tax proceeds if the site successfully lures visitors to Hernando County.
Considering Dukes and other commissioners have indicated a past willingness to divest the county of its own surplus property, the effort to save Chinsegut Hill Manor House is a welcome reprieve from that philosophy.
It also should be noted that agreeing to seek the state lease became one of the final public votes for departing Commissioners Jeff Stabins and John Druzbick. They and the rest of the board should be commended for trying to save what preservationists call one of Hernando County's most important historical sites.