A project to restore the former barracks at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum has become the victim of an “unprecedented” reshuffling of the Florida Historical Commission’s annual list of grant recommendations by Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
As it has done every year for decades, the Commission recently reviewed and scored applications for the state’s special category grant program for historic preservation, then forwarded its recommendations to Detzner.
And then, for the first time that several members of the Historical Commission and other experts can remember, Detzner reordered the list. Six projects were shuffled 30 or more spots downward on the list that Detzner forwarded to state legislators in December. As a result, other projects were moved higher on the list, anywhere from two to nine spots.
It was a grave disappointment for the museum.
“Of course we at the Lighthouse and Maritime Museum were unhappily surprised, and we are still trying simply to understand it,” said Peter Spiller, chairman of the museum’s board.
The project to restore old World War II barracks at the St. Augustine Lighthouse, previously ranked 17th, was 55th on Detzner’s list.
Detzner’s office categorized the changes as a slight revision, to focus the priorities on properties in immediate need of restoration.
He “wanted to prioritize projects that focused on the preservation and renovation of historic properties, in particular, properties that are in a critical state of need due to age and the urgent need for repairs,” wrote spokeswoman Sarah Revell in an email. “The Secretary’s top priority is ensuring the projects submitted to the Legislature for consideration fulfill the grant program’s mission while being good stewards of taxpayer dollars, which is why he slightly revised the initial list submitted to him by the FHC.”
Kathy Fleming, executive director at the Lighthouse and a member of the Historical Commission, said she had not seen a similar reshuffling of the list in her 24 years in the business. Fleming, who was appointed to the Commission by Gov. Rick Scott, said the staff and board at the Lighthouse, completed in 1874, were very surprised by the news and struggling to understand what happened.
“I really believe in the process we went through,” Fleming said last week. “It was scored appropriately.”
A project at Fort Clinch State Park in Fernandina Beach was also shuffled downward.
The Fort Clinch application, by the state Department of Environmental Protection, is the second phase of a project to restore the bastions, the corner structures around the outer wall of the fort. The bastions were originally reinforced with iron inside brick walls, but the bricks deteriorated and the iron, exposed to salty air, has rusted, said Jason Mahon, a department spokesman. The project, to replace and repair the bricks, will “restore the structural integrity of the fort and allow for the safe access of park visitors.”
The Historical Commission scored the Fort Clinch application second-highest of 59 projects, behind a project at the Vizcaya estate in Miami.
But when Detzner’s list was released, Fort Clinch had plummeted 49 spots to 51st. A Florida State University project at Mission San Luis in Leon County, previously ranked third, also moved 49 spots down the list. A preservation and rehabilitation project at Wakulla Lodge dropped 30 spots and now is ranked 56th.
A Florida Public Archaeology Network project to equip and train volunteers around the state to monitor the impacts of sea level rise on historic sites, profiled in the latest installment of The News-Journal’s “Rising Seas” project, was moved 41 spots down the list. The Heritage Monitoring Scouts program, based at Flagler College in St. Augustine, had previously been ranked 13th by the Historical Commission.
In a letter to Detzner, the Archaeology Network’s executive director, William Lees, said the commission has ranked the special category grant applications for decades, “in a public process established by statute and guidelines.”
“To my knowledge, including my experience as a former member of the FHC, the drastic reordering of the ranking by dropping seven applications to the bottom of the list of 59 projects is unprecedented,” wrote Lees. “This action, in my opinion, goes well beyond any reasonable definition of amendment, and virtually guarantees that none of these projects will be funded.”
Lees called the Monitoring Scouts program one of the network’s “most critical.”
Lees’ letter also pointed out that Detzner reduced the funding recommendations from the Historical Commission, from the $432,700 recommended for the network to $242,700.
“I am also extremely concerned that your action has undermined the due process that has worked well for over 20 years,” wrote Lees, who could not be reached for comment. “The work of the FHC has resulted in a trusted ranking of projects that is respected as objective and geographically balanced, and free of political influence,” he continued in the letter. “I am sure you are aware that trust is difficult to restore once it has been betrayed.”
The annual special category historic preservation grants are administered by the Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources, through an appropriation approved by state legislators. According to statute, the commission reviews and evaluates the proposals and makes recommendations, “including a priority ranking,” considering the purpose, economic and other benefits, and cost of each proposal.
The broad range of eligible projects includes restoration, rehabilitation, stabilization, archaeological work, analysis, field research and exhibit design and fabrication.
In Volusia and Flagler counties, projects at the Flagler Agricultural Museum in Palm Coast and the Pioneer Settlement for the Creative Arts in Barberville were beneficiaries, increasing their likelihood of receiving money in the final state budget to be approved next spring.
That’s “good news for us,” said Kara Hoblick, executive director of the Agricultural Museum, who learned about the reshuffle from The News-Journal.
The Agricultural Museum’s application for a grant to restore five buildings donated from the former Strawn family citrus operation in DeLeon Springs moved up seven spots on the list to 37th. The museum hopes to refurbish and complete repairs needed on the buildings previously moved from the Strawn citrus packing plant site, north of DeLeon Springs, to the museum’s location in northern Flagler County.
The Pioneer Settlement’s grant application to restore the Joseph Underhill House at its Barberville location rose five spots on the list to 17th. The Greek Revival-style brick home, built in 1879, is the oldest brick home in Volusia County.
The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation has board members who are happy that projects they support were pushed up the list and those who are unhappy that projects they support were pushed down, said Clay Henderson of New Smyrna Beach, the Trust’s immediate past president.
In 25 years of dealing with the state grant process, Henderson said he had never seen the historical commission list restructured in such a fashion.
“It may have been done in a previous administration,” he said, “but I’m not familiar with it being done in the current administration.”