Firefighters submit Obici House plan

Published 9:37 pm Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The formal request for proposals for the restoration and reuse of the historic Obici House has expired, and both proposals that were submitted were rejected.

Even so, the jockeying for control of the structure that was once the home of Suffolk philanthropist Amedeo Obici and his wife Louise continued on Wednesday with an unsolicited proposal from a group that had been unable to meet the original RFP deadline.

The Suffolk Professional Firefighters Union proposes to use volunteer labor to restore the home and convert it into a union hall that would be used almost exclusively by members of the local union and by the causes the group supports, Lt. Mason Copeland, the president of the local organization, said Wednesday.

The firefighters’ group originally had intended to submit a proposal during the city’s RFP process, which elicited only two responses — both rejected, according to city officials, because they did not conform to the RFP’s requirements.

Just a few days before the Oct. 22 deadline for submissions, the union learned that it could not get a bank to finance the project, and members were unable to scramble and find other revenue sources in such a short time, Copeland said Wednesday.

Since then, however, the group has been able to address the financing problem, he said.

“(The house) is still available, and we’ve had time to look at other options.”

Copeland would not disclose the contents of the union’s financial plan for the Obici House, but he mentioned fundraisers and money the group has on hand as two possible components.

Also, he hopes to take advantage of the local members’ willingness to put in some “sweat equity.”

By taking advantage of firefighters working during off-duty hours to complete the plumbing, roofing, electrical and other work that needs to be done on the house, the cost of renovating the structure would be significantly lower than others have predicted, Copeland said.

Some tradesmen have inspected the building for the firefighters’ union, he said. Based on their surveys, Copeland predicts that the work “is not going to cost anywhere near” the $150,000 figure he says he has heard used elsewhere as a cost for fixing up the home, which stands vacant on the edge of the 18th green at Sleepy Hole Golf Course.

“Most of the cost in a renovation is the labor cost,” he said.

In fact, even the $150,000 estimate is far lower than what one group expects to pay for restoring the circa 1920s Italianate home.

In its response to Suffolk’s request for proposals, Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House estimated a cost of more than $1.77 million for restoring the home and nearby Carriage House, with another million dollars to complete the outfitting of the Obici House as a restaurant and the Carriage House as a set of offices and a grill room.

The CPOH would lease space in the main house to a restaurateur to operate a fine-dining establishment. The grill room and offices in the Carriage House would serve the golf course, which is operated on a long-term lease with the city by Ronnie Rountree, who also submitted a failed Obici House proposal.

Copeland said the firefighters, on the other hand, would use the building for their monthly meetings, for special events and parties organized by and for firefighters and their families and for use by the charitable organizations they support — MDA, the Central Virginia Burn Camp, Project Lifesaver and the like.

The union has been searching for a permanent home for some time, he added, noting that meetings have been held in a dining area at Sentara Obici Hospital and at other locations around the city.

If the Obici House deal falls through, Copeland said, the firefighters will continue their search elsewhere. But the Obici House is still the preferred choice.

“We need a union hall, and this could serve us well.” Besides, he added, “This is part of the history of our city. We don’t want to see this thing torn down.”

It was unclear on Wednesday what effect the firefighters’ proposal would have on the Obici House process.

“Anyone can submit an unsolicited proposal at anytime,” city spokeswoman Debbie George said, adding that she could not confirm that the union had submitted a proposal. “There is a very specific process that has to be followed.”

With the rejection of the two RFP responses, the city closed that particular process, she said. Since then, officials have said only that they are examining their options regarding the Obici House.