Three bidders qualify to run Spanish Quarter

St Augustine spent about thirty years, using public and private funds, to restore the colonial Spanish period buildings along and adjoining the north end of St George Street in order to attract heritage tourism to our 400 plus year-old city — part of the area remains vibrant and part remains silent.

The State of Florida owns, and the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund control, 34 historic properties, and 2 additional parks, that at one time produced about $400,000 each year in state revenue as well as additional local rental income for the City of St Augustine.

In a controversial and some say ill-advised move, the mayor and commissioners, along with city staff, declared they were no longer able to subsidize the losses incurred through their management of the properties — almost all of which have taken on some form of commercial use. The mayor lobbied state representative Bill Proctor to support legislation that would transfer that responsibility to the University of Florida.

The city got what they asked for, but not before it became clear that the legislature was in fact prepared to fund the university to help subsidize their custodial role — inciting a last-minute political skirmish and failed attempt to reclaim management of the properties.

In December 2010, a direct support organization, UF Historic St. Augustine, Inc., became responsible to oversee the state properties; that include the Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum. As promised by city officials last September, the epicenter of the city’s heritage tourism investment was closed down — to the chagrin of residents, visitors, and other private business owners, also located downtown.

At this time, the restored buildings and supporting period artifacts simply remain idle — except for the occasional visit of school groups.

“I’m reminded of a Twilight Zone episode when I climb the wall for a picture,” Historic City News editor Michael Gold said. “It is eerie to see the blacksmith shop, tavern, gift shop, gardens, and stations once manned by re-enactors; now with their doors closed, lights out, and no human beings in sight — as if all the people just vanished.”

After Friday’s deadline, on the second try, after the original, poorly constructed “request for proposal” was rejected from consideration by the city commission, three private organizations have come forward and said that they would like to be selected to revamp and run the museum.

Director of General Services for the City of St Augustine, Jim Piggott, told reporters that the candidates are the St Augustine Lighthouse and Museum; Pat Croce, who owns the St Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum; and Historic Tours of America, which operates the green sightseeing trolleys.

A committee, made up of four University of Florida employees and three city staff, is expected to select a new manager in May. The successful bidder should be able to return the Colonial Spanish Quarter to operation by October, according to Piggott.

Photo credits: © 2012 Historic City News staff photographer

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