PALM HARBOR – After more than nine months of negotiations, the board for the Palm Harbor Community Services Agency, or PHCSA, approved a final draft to operate the Rheba Sutton White Chapel and neighboring Harbor Hall on behalf of Pinellas County May 21.
CSA Palm Harbor, the parks and recreation branch of the agency, has been operating the historic wedding and special event venues since last summer, when Old Palm Harbor Main Street gave up the venture. A temporary license has governed its stewardship so far, while CSA Palm Harbor director Erica Lynford evaluated the financial stability of the venues.
Both White Chapel and Harbor Hall, at 1190 Georgia Ave., have remained steadily booked since that time. Responsibility for maintenance of the facilities has been the main point of negotiation as drafts of lease passed between the agency and the county in the last several months.
The new lease, at an annual rate of $1, is for five years, with an automatic renewal for three more five-year terms. The county is responsible for maintenance and repair of “structural building components” including the roof, windows, exterior walls and structural flooring. The agency accepts responsibility for everything else, including site drainage and parking lots, the repair of which has been a point of contention between the agency and the county at East Lake Community Library.
The lease also includes a clause that requires the county to submit a request to close downtown streets, subject to private events, weddings and receptions scheduled at the venues in advance.
The new lease likely will be a template for similarly run facilities throughout the county, said agency chair Rex Haslam. In fact, county staff have said that they will reevaluate the leases for the rest of the facilities the agency maintains on the county’s behalf, he added.
“We’ve come a long way from where the agreements have been to where they are today,” said Haslam.
Given the increased responsibility of running two more facilities and a favorable annual evaluation approved last month, the PHCSA board gave Lynford a 4 percent raise in her salary.
In the pursuit of more education, Lynford became a parks and recreation professional March 31, certified by the National Recreation and Parks Association. Haslam also cited her “good rapport with the county” as a strong reason for her favorable review, in which she was rated a score of 126 out of 135 possible points.
“I think the increase is more than appropriate,” board member Elliot Stern said.
Lynford’s annual salary of $63,700 has increased to $66,248.
Five acres considered
CSA Palm Harbor is closer to addressing about five acres of overgrown land behind the Centre of Palm Harbor.
In an arrangement similar to the one for White Chapel, CSA Palm Harbor operates and maintains the building and land for the Centre, which the county owns. Without funds to renovate the land into two multipurpose fields, Lynford invited county Parks and Recreation Operations Manager Kathy Swain to review the site last month.
Stern, also invited to walk through the property, said the informal meeting garnered more good news than anticipated.
“What appeared to be a defensive position as they walked through the door turned out to be a rather positive,” he said. “We discussed what the next step was and how county could help us, even though it’s supposed to be on our shoulders to pay for it.”
The preliminary review determined that the agency had plenty working against it, Stern explained. The land is overgrown, big enough for only one multipurpose field and the most recent tree survey – a step needed before any work begins – is 12 years old, he said. But the officials did not see any activity from gopher tortoises or other protected species. The next step is for an environmentalist to review the land.
County officials suggested using the five acres behind the Centre as a place to train employees on clearing brush using a new vehicle to be purchased with help of a recent grant. Whether the land can be converted into a multipurpose field remains to be seen, but Lynford said she thought a partnership with the county might at least help clean up the space.
“And bottom line: it’ll make the area safe. Right now, it’s so overgrown and dark and a nice haven for activity we don’t want to talk about. That was made clear,” she told the board.