Commissioners will seek 50 year lease from state for Chinsegut Hill

At the Nov. 7, 2017 Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) Meeting, Chinsegut Hill leaders Lisa Callea, President of Friends of Chinsegut, Inc. and Natalie Kahler, Manager of the Chinsegut Hill Retreat and Museum sought a five year renewal of their license.

Since Chinsegut Hill is owned by the state, and leased to Hernando County, amendments to the existing lease, allow the BOCC to decide to: (1) Change the term from increments of five years to 50 years; (2) retain its lease as is (renewing every five (5) years); or decide not to renew and turn Chinsegut Hill over to the State (owner) in 2018.
Approaching their five year anniversary, Kahler presented an introduction to “Mysteries of the Museum,” a video highlighting the past five years of Chinsegut Hill Manor, which appeared on the Travel Channel (Spectrum channel 106).

The house was built in 1852 by the Ederington family, whose descendants still live in Hernando County today, and are still very involved in the community. Later purchased by the Robbins family, the mansion became a hub for notable visitors, including J.C. Penney, Helen Keller, and Thomas Edison.

During 1933-1938, around 200 men worked at the mansion with the Civilian Conservation Corps., as part of FDR’s “New Deal.” Kahler showed a photo described as a “relative of one of our commissioners” who was involved in cattle research and improving farming techniques with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

A photo from 2013 showed a worn and battered Chinsegut Manor, almost unrecognizable from its former majesty. It took two years, and a 1.5-million-dollar grant from the state to restore the building. Drawing both local and national interest, Chinsegut’s 2016 economic impact to the county was reported by Callea as $245,000. The rental cottages were renovated and furnished entirely through donations. The “Bed Tax” numbers were not available during the meeting.

Questions from the commissioners started with Jeff Holcomb, who called Chinsegut a “great historical asset, and acknowledged that the renovation and subsequent attraction is giving the county an economic boost. Holcomb then mentioned the need for an official business continuity plan in the event the current leaders can no longer manage Chinsegut. “What happens if you break a leg, life pattern changes … how does it go on?”

Commissioner Steve Champion added to Holcomb’s question, mentioning that Kahler is running for County Commissioner in 2018, so passing the management baton may be a future consideration. Additionally, Champion said he can see how Chinsegut could be self-sustaining, and not requiring tax dollars for its continued operations.
Commissioner Nick Nicholson commended Callea and Kahler on the renovation and continued involvement in keeping Chinsegut going. “A lot of people didn’t think this would happen,” recalled Nicholson, “and to have it be self-sustaining, and … do everything you’ve done. I just want to thank you, and the volunteers, and everyone else who’s contributed to this.”

Commissioner John Allocco said of the 5-year lease that he was comforted by the fact, that if something were to go wrong, the county could get out of the lease in six months.

Randy Griffiths, the Assistant County Attorney explained the differences in the license that the Friends of Chinsegut, Inc. (Friends) has with the county, and the license that the county has with the state. “A license agreement is a right to use. We may have been optimistic in 2013, but the state, and our lease with them, says they’re absolutely not going to pay for anything.” Repair, operations and maintenance were all transferred to Friends. The question according to Griffiths is, “What kind of relationship do you want with the state? Do you want to continue it?”

Of the options available, all commissioners seemed to be in favor of the 5-year term.

Commissioner Allocco clarified, “The 50-year lease would be the county with the state, not the county with Friends. These are two different things, because (the 50-year lease) does allow us more opportunities to get grants.” However, the 50-lease allows no exit strategy for the county, should they decide they no longer want the property.
Griffiths recommended, “If you want to continue leasing from the state, and you want to continue a relationship with the Friends, then we need to take over the repair and maintenance, and put Chinsegut Hill under a department, and fund it every year. To ask (Friends) to continue to pay for everything, it’s not going to work.”

Because the mansion and land are a historic site, Commissioner Champion asked, “Why don’t we just ask for the property? It’s a Hernando county jewel, and it should be ours.”

Chairman Dukes continued the same thought, “Especially growing up here, you can’t look away from the fact that it’s a huge part of the beginning of the county. It’s part of the roots of how this county started. Just like the (Little Rock) cannery… ‘Well, it’s really not making any money,’ but it’s one of few in the whole state, and it’s always been here.” He added “So there are things that government should do, even when the people don’t appreciate it, for the sake of our heritage.”

A motion carried 5-0 to convert the current 5-year lease to a 50-year lease with the state. Future agenda items are planned for the months ahead to complete all outstanding issues.

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