UF management of St. Augustine now producing historical dividends
Published: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 4:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 4:59 p.m.
ST. AUGUSTINE — Visitors to the country's oldest continuously occupied city founded by European settlers can now see the impact of the University of Florida's stewardship of two dozen state-owned properties here.
Three years after taking over the management of 38 buildings on 23 parcels in the historic downtown quarter, UF can point to the opening of the Colonial Quarter, a historically accurate tourist attraction with live re-enactors in colonial garb that has been operating for two months.
In the fall, the university will open a museum on the ground floor of Government House, which is undergoing partial renovations to accommodate the estimated 5 million visitors who come here each year. Its first exhibit, curated by UF historians and designed as a traveling exhibit, focuses on the first colony to settle the area in 1565.
The goal is to get enough work completed in time for the 450th anniversary celebration of the city's founding in 2015 and the 500th anniversary of the state's discovery by Europeans this year.
Progress has been slower than originally envisioned when UF Historic St. Augustine Inc. developed its strategic plan in 2009. The vision was for the attraction to be completed by 2013. Although work remains to be done, those involved in the management of the properties say they are pleased with where they're at.
"In a strategic plan, you put your hopes out and bump into reality," said Allen Lastinger, chairman of UF Historic St. Augustine, the direct service organization created to restore, maintain and manage the state properties.
Board member Rick Gonzalez, a South Florida architect who specializes in historic preservation, said, "I think it's amazing how much we got done in the short time period."
UF got into the cultural tourism business by way of state legislation passed in 2007 that charged the university with managing all historic state-owned properties in St. Augustine.
The goal is to ensure long-term preservation of those sites and at the same time accommodate an educational program that met the state's needs for professionals in fields including historic preservation, archaeology, cultural resource management and museum administration.
Its goal also includes economic development for the state and for St. Augustine.
The statute provides for the transfer of artifacts, documents, and equipment to UF — which at present count come close to 2,000 items, said Linda Dixon, associate director of Facilities, Planning and Construction.
The legislation also gave UF the authority to create a direct service organization, a nonprofit corporation to raise private money to help restore and maintain the properties. And it gave the organization the right to enter into contracts and agreements with vendors accepting payment for goods, collection of admission and negotiation of rent or lease agreements.
Currently, the university collects $550,000 annually from the merchants who lease space in the dozens of state-owned properties along St. George Street and other streets downtown, said Billy Triay, property manager for UF Historic St. Augustine.
The university also has entered into a memorandum of agreement with former Philadelphia 76ers owner Pat Croce to run Colonial Quarter, a living history museum with actors dressed in colonial garb demonstrating musket loading, blacksmithing and shipbuilding, among other things.
Croce, who also owns the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, has a 10-year lease with a five-year extension to operate the Colonial Quarter. The UF Historic St. Augustine Board of Directors on Wednesday granted him an additional five-year extension so he can recoup the investment he put into renovating the exhibits inside the Colonial Quarter.
UF gets 5 percent of the take or $100,000, whichever comes first, Triay said.
Horses and ghosts
The legislation was the brainchild of Bill Proctor, who represented St. Augustine as a state legislator from 2004-2012 and is currently chancellor of Flagler College. "I was just trying to get us some money," he said.
At the time, the city was responsible for maintaining the properties, and it proposed a tax on the ghost tours and horse rides to raise money to take care of long-neglected maintenance.
"I didn't think we should tax the horses and ghosts," Proctor said.
With the help of former Florida Secretary of State Roy Hunt, a professor emeritus at the Levin College of Law, Proctor drafted legislation transferring management to UF and also sought state funding to help maintain the properties.
It's an unusual arrangement but not without precedent. It was based on a state law that gave the University of West Florida management of state-owned lands in Pensacola.
Leading up to the 400th anniversary of St. Augustine in 1965, residents raised private money for the restoration of the historic district, Triay said. Buildings were restored or "reconstructed" on the original sites based on historic documents, he said.
Those buildings are approaching 50 years old, Triay said, which makes them eligible for nomination as historical structures.
The state managed the properties until 1997, when it handed off the responsibility to the city of St. Augustine. The city managed the properties until their transfer to UF in 2011.
During those years, the city operated the state properties at a loss of $700,000 to $900,000 a year, even as it put off needed maintenance, City Manager John Regan said.
"It was a financial albatross," he said.
One thing the city accomplished during its stewardship was renovation of the second-floor "governor's office" at Government House, to coincide with a visit by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain in 2001, Triay said.
Since the city has been unencumbered of the historic properties, it has refinanced its debt and embarked on a $30 million capital improvement project, Regan said. Those projects include a new breakwater and seawall and other bayfront improvements, a community swimming pool and a new road.
By taking over the properties, UF "really contributed to the city's ability to get through this economic crisis," Regan said.
UF has had some luck getting state revenue, but not enough for the kind of complete renovation work the strategic plan envisioned. As envisioned by the strategic plan, the total cost of restoring the state-owned buildings is more than $30 million.
The state has given the organization only about $650,000 a year for maintenance and operation costs, said Ed Poppell, director of economic development for both the UF Development Corp. and UF Historic St. Augustine.
The organization has spent that money fixing long-overdue maintenance issues and upgrading mechanical and electrical equipment, Dixon said.
"This is the third year the organization has focused on getting caught up on deferred maintenance," Dixon said.
One example of making the most of limited resources has been Government House. The estimated cost of renovating Government House alone is $14 million, but the board has received only $1.2 million from the Bureau of Historic Preservation for that project.
Realizing it wasn't going to have time or money for a complete renovation, the board focused its priorities on renovating the areas of Government House to accommodate a new exhibit space.
"We had an aggressive timeline to get all this accomplished," Lastinger said.
The first-floor exhibit area is under renovation, as well as back-of-house space for a catering kitchen, expanded public restrooms and an elevator to comply with accessibility issues, Triay said.
The organization also has received $1.7 million for the First Colony exhibit, Dixon said.
Completion of the renovation is planned for around July 15, followed by the exhibit's installation to coincide with a soft opening by late August or September, Dixon said.
The Legislature has allocated another $2.25 million for UF's continued restoration efforts in the 2013-14 budget, Poppell said.
If it survives Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen, the money will be used for renovations on the second floor of Government House, building new public restrooms on St. George Street and producing a documentary, Poppell said.
The strategic plan had anticipated more aggressive private fundraising, Lastinger said.
"But we had nothing to sell and no track record," he said.
But with the Colonial Quarter operating, the First Colony exhibit due to open in a few months and the Government House renovations about to be unveiled, the organization has a product it can sell to private investors, he said.
"I am not at all disappointed in where we are right now," Lastinger said. "I am pleased with what we've done with limited funding."