Group seeks Obici House meeting

Published 6:11 pm Tuesday, November 24, 2009

With lingering questions about Suffolk’s rejection of proposals for the restoration and reuse of the historic Obici House, the city appears unwilling to talk with the group that submitted the most comprehensive plan for the old home.

In a Nov. 18 letter to Deputy City Manager Patrick Roberts, Susan Blair, president of the Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House, had called for a meeting with city administrators.

“We renew our previous request to meet with the City manager to discuss this matter, and now broaden the request to include Mayor Johnson and Councilman Barclay, in whose borough Obici House is located,” Blair wrote.

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But Suffolk officials seem ready to close the books on the request for proposals process that attracted responses from only CPOH and Sleepy Hole Golf Course operator James R. “Ronnie” Rountree.

“That RFP process has been completed,” Suffolk spokesperson Debbie George said late Monday in an emailed response to questions about the letter. “We still can not speak on any specific proposal. We will continue to evaluate options as it applies to Obici House.”

Deputy City Manager Roberts sent a two-page letter to Blair Nov. 13 in which he outlined a number of reasons that city administrators had deemed the CPOH proposal non-responsive to the RFP’s requirements.

In his letter, Roberts cited concerns he said the city had regarding the CPOH plan’s financing, the group’s property management plan, the proposal’s compatibility with Sleepy Hole Golf Course, the proposed general terms of the agreement and the lease price offer.

The city charged that CPOH did not provide evidence it could finance the project and that the group did not show evidence of tentative agreements with a tenant who would use the house.

The citizens’ group had proposed that Obici House be restored and put to use as a fine-dining restaurant. The building would be owned by CPOH, which would lease it to a restaurateur.

In her letter of response, Blair took issue with the charge that CPOH funding sources were insufficiently clear.

“The CPOH proposal clearly identified the anticipated costs and the sources of funding for the effort, with the tax credits alone in the anticipated amount (of) $710,000 readily obtainable,” she wrote.

“The reasonable balance necessary for the project would be supported by available grants and private donations. This is the common and time-tested approach to the preservation of historic properties, and there exists adequate precedent in Suffolk in this regard, most notably in the recent City-approved restoration of the former Suffolk High School.”

The CPOH proposal explicitly states that no city tax revenue would be used to support the restoration of the home or its operation as a restaurant.

Regarding the lease, both CPOH’s original proposal and its answer to Suffolk’s explanation refer to an existing restaurateur having expressed an interest in operating out of the house.

The group, however, maintains that it needs the city’s commitment before it could move forward with lease arrangements or name the interested party.

The group further disagrees with the city on issues of parking, compatibility of the proposed restaurant and grill room with the adjacent Sleepy Hole Golf Course and the need for a 10-percent deposit on the expected $1.7-million cost of restoring the building.

Mostly, though, CPOH officials — who have been working since early this year to try to get the city to make a commitment to restore or protect from destruction the Italianate home where the late Suffolk philanthropist Amedeo Obici once lived with his wife Louise — say they want a chance to explain their proposal in person.

Noting that the city’s Obici House RFP had held out the chance of oral presentations by those making offers, Blair said, “(T)hese issues could have been discussed and virtually all of these misconceptions and erroneous assumptions could have been addressed.”

In her emailed statement, George, the city’s spokesperson, did not answer a question about why such a presentation would not have been allowed.

People she talks to about the proposal and its reception by Suffolk officials have been supportive of the CPOH cause, Blair said.

“A lot of people just can’t believe that the city … didn’t at least bring our group to the table,” she said in a telephone interview Friday evening.

“A lot of people just can’t believe (the proposal) was outright rejected. People liked the entire package. We were willing to do the grunt work, and I think people appreciated that.”