No fair shake from City Council

Published 7:27 pm Saturday, January 9, 2010

More than anything, it would seem, the two groups that have submitted proposals for renovating and reusing historic Obici House want an honest appraisal of the plans they have put forward for the deteriorating building that once was the home of Planters Peanut founder and Suffolk philanthropist Amedeo Obici and his wife Louise.

Seven years after Suffolk acquired the Italianate-style home from the city of Portsmouth in a deal that included Sleepy Hole Golf Course, which lies adjacent to Obici House, Suffolk officials still are not sure what to do with the deteriorating building. Having recently signed a 20-year agreement with contractor Ronnie Rountree to upgrade and operate the course, city officials are understandably worried about taking steps that could be seen as counterproductive to the golf course operation.

Still, Obici House predates the golf course, has substantially greater historic value and provides a more direct link to the city’s past and to those who made it great. And the city has known for years that the old home needed work. Considering those factors, both the Suffolk Professional Firefighters Union and the Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House had reason to expect that the City Council would give their proposals for saving and reusing the house a fair hearing.

Wednesday’s meeting of the Suffolk City Council, however, should have made it clear to those groups and to other interested citizens that the minds of at least some council members are already made up. Following a report from Deputy City Manager Patrick Roberts on the status of the two unsolicited proposals, discussion by council members quickly veered away from those proposals and onto an increasingly confused track that ended with a vote to put out the word that those interested in removing and hauling away portions of the home or its contents should get ready to make offers.

Councilmen Jeffrey L. Gardy and Charles F. Brown, in particular, were champing at the bit to be done with the whole issue by letting the house be stripped of its significant contents and then demolished. Yet there are still two proposals to repair and reuse the home that are at least ostensibly under consideration. Council in general — and Gardy and Brown, in particular — seemed utterly uninterested in those proposals during Wednesday’s meeting. Instead, they tripped all over themselves in their apparent hurry to clear away the building and provide a nice, clean property for the golf course operator to develop.

The point of the discussion on Wednesday had been to update the council on the situation. When council’s lack of interest in the proposals became clear, city administrators sought to get clear directions for how to proceed. The train-wreck of a discussion that followed only served to sow confusion on a matter that begs for clarity and forthrightness.

But Wednesday’s discussion proved at least one thing to those who took the time to watch it: There is a faction, and a possible majority, of the City Council that has already made up its mind regarding the fate of the Obici House. For them, the old home isn’t historical — it’s history.