Monday, June 21, 2010

St. Augustine Record: CITY -- Save downtown, speak out: St. Augustine officials oppose UF control of historic properties

City: Save downtown, speak out
St. Augustine officials oppose UF control of historic properties
Posted: June 20, 2010 - 12:07am

Former St. Augustine Mayor Mark Alexander said he became furious last week after reading comments made by state Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, in support of the University of Florida's acquisition of 34 state-owned historic properties in the city.

"Proctor was elected by the people of this district, not by the people of Gainesville," Alexander said. "Any previous representative in that position would have lent us a hand. He should be in our corner."

Alexander, owner of White Lion Restaurant and Pub, 20 Cuna St., said he's started a grass roots public relations campaign opposing UF's takeover.

He started Friday by sending out multiple letters seeking support.

"We pulled off the (Spanish) king's visit without the help from UF or the state. The university should work with us instead of against us," he said.

He suspects UF might want the properties because they increase the university's net worth by tens of millions of dollars.

"This affects everybody," Alexander said. "Nobody knows if UF will improve historic tourism, turn those buildings into classrooms or let the properties sit. I don't think even UF knows what it's going to do."

Former St. Augustine mayor Len Weeks said he's unsure UF will be able to handle the task of dealing with the historic properties.

"Are we going to go back to a system we had 10 years ago?" Weeks said. "The properties were managed by people who didn't live here. That is happening again. What if they come in and make them academically friendly but tourist unfriendly? It could ruin downtown. That's the fear factor right now."

UF has offered no outlines of its plans other than pointing to a $300,000 study done in 2009.

"Having an adversarial relationship is not the way to go into a community. The city should fight as hard as it can for local control," Weeks said.

Opposition does not sit well with Rep. Proctor.

He said committee meetings were held in St. Augustine before the 2007 legislation that gave UF the properties.

"We've done exactly what the city asked us to do several years ago," he said. "I'm sorry there seems to be a change of mind. But instead of fighting UF, they should be cooperating with the university to make things better for everybody."

The university leadership will not turn away from constructive suggestions, he said.

He also sounded frustrated.

"One (city) administration told us to advance and the next administration told us to withdraw. What's the next administration going to do?" he said.

Incoming City Manager John Regan said Mayor Joe Boles has been "pretty vocal" about the city's position, perhaps giving the impression that he was the only one unhappy about the arrangement.

"We're going to meet with UF on Thursday," he said. "We're keeping our options on the table. We don't know how the city will interface with the UF plan. We don't even know the UF plan. We're not asking to (sunset) the legislation any more. We plan to continue our discussion and see where that takes us."

However, Dana Ste. Claire, director of Heritage Tourism and Historic Preservation for the city, said he has plans already moving forward in the Spanish Quarter.

"We've invested a lot of time and money in the product, improving the show. We've been doing this for decades," he said.

Ste. Claire said the growing opposition to UF's control is not city-sponsored.

"But Mark Alexander and Joe Boles are not alone in their positions. I walk St. George Street almost daily and stay in touch with the tourism industry and attraction association. Many people are uncomfortable and opposed to this," he said.

They see an outside institution coming here and managing properties that define the city, he said.

"They see a loss of community identity. It's hundreds of people. Just because the commission wasn't engaged a year ago doesn't mean they are not engaged now. They see others spending money on something the city can do better," Ste. Claire said. "This isn't about fulfilling the mission of the university. You don't need 34 state properties to improve their academic program."

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