Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Good story, but misleading headline: "UF takeover progressing == Movement depends on money to restore historic buildings"
Photo credit: Maureen Ortagus www.maureen-ortagus.com
Publication Date: 07/29/09
The University of Florida's effort to assume ownership and maintenance of Government House and 33 other historic state properties in St. Augustine is moving forward, despite rumors of its demise.
Ed Poppel, vice president of business affairs for the University of Florida, said Tuesday that some buildings, such as solid, historic Government House on King Street, were in dire condition.
Crumbling internally, the gray stone-fronted building is a Spanish-style reproduction built in the 1930s by the Work Projects Administration. Metal beams in its walls are rusting. A complete fix will cost $14 million.
So it's really isn't solid, historic or even Spanish.
The total cost of renovation and restoration for all state buildings here is $23 million.
"(Government House) will be a real challenge," Poppel said. "When we get the money, we can do some promising things here in St. Augustine."
In May 2007, the Legislature passed a bill mandating UF and St. Augustine to forge a contract that would cement the takeover, including a provision that UF organize a "direct support organization" to legally allow private donors to give tax-deductible contributions while also remaining anonymous, if they wished.
However, the bill didn't include any state funding.
Poppel said Florida's congressional delegation is seeking earmarks to pay for the maintenance as well as $5 million toward the cost of a $10 million Interpretive Center in the city's Spanish Quarter colonial village.
"Our goal is to have programs in the (interpretive) center by 2012, to be ready for the 2013 celebration," Poppel said. "This would be a statewide resource and a statewide celebration."
However, Poppel's phrase, "when we get the money," made some city residents, most notably St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles, consider Florida's economy and doubt that UF's takeover will ever happen.
"It's clear that UF would love to have these properties," Boles, a UF alumnus, said Tuesday night. "But the school has lost $148 million in endowments. I doubt these renovations are going to take precedence over the education of their students. The state doesn't have any money."
Boles believes St. Augustine might be able to find private donors to repair the buildings because, he said, local residents give a high priority to historic renovation.
"It could be a lot of years (before the economy improves)," Boles said. "We built many of these buildings with local money in the 1960s. Nothing's changed since then."
St. Augustine celebrated its 400th birthday in 1965. Its 450th comes in 2015.
The city leases the historic buildings from the state in five-year gulps for $1 per year. The city raises about $1.5 million in rent from the buildings but also spends $550,000 a year in maintenance.
Boles wants a 99-year lease and asked for one at a state legislative meeting in County Auditorium.
He was met with silence.
One delegation member, State Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, didn't think turning over state buildings to St. Augustine was "in the best interests of the city."
The University of West Florida took over maintenance and operations of state historic buildings in Pensacola, receiving $500,000 annually from the Legislature to do so, he said.
"That's a formula or model that's been working for years," Proctor said. "Local city commissions can change their priorities every year. These buildings need stability and long-term care. You don't blow the best long-term opportunity (for that)."
Boles said the Interpretive Center is moving along and was a joint St. Augustine and National Park Service project. The Park Service has received $5 million to cover half the cost. And the city received $500,000 from Seventh District Congressman John Mica, R-Longwood, for half the project's planning and design.
"They don't give out $5 million unless they're going to finish it," Boles said.
Dr. Bill Adams, retiring director of the city's Historic Preservation and Heritage Tourism, said the university has never said how much it would cost to pay its staff members here.
"If UF plans to take over these properties, the first thing it needs to do is create a direct support organization," Adams said. "The second thing is name members and start making decisions about what programs they need to do."
Poppel said the proposed Interpretive Center will be a "shared partnership" between the federal government and Florida with the property donated by the city.
In the current economic environment, maintenance costs could be lower. And, he added, there's no doubt the economy would change for the better and UF would have enough money for the historic properties.
"I'm as optimistic today as we were a year ago or two years ago," he said. "We're still as engaged and committed as ever. Nothing's changed."
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