Rountree steps into Obici ring

Published 10:57 pm Thursday, January 14, 2010

With time seemingly running out on historic Obici House, a new party stepped in Thursday with a plan to save it from demolition.

Suffolk Planning Commission member James R. “Ronnie” Rountree, whose company operates the Sleepy Hole Golf Course, told city officials that he would like to “incorporate Obici House into the operation and vision” of that course, according to a announcement by the city on Thursday evening.

“Rountree is now proposing to incorporate the renovation and reuse of the house at its current location,” Suffolk spokesperson Debbie George said in a press release sent to the media at 7:26 p.m.

George’s release stated that Rountree’s proposal was motivated by “his strong commitment to the community.”

“Not only do I believe the building should be reused, I’d like to make it possible and open it to the community,” he is quoted as saying.

Rountree’s announcement came at the deadline that had been set for information on two earlier offers during a City Council meeting last week. Council members had voted 6-2 to have city staff review the two unsolicited proposals that were on the table and determine whether either would be viable. If both failed the test, council had authorized the former home of Planters Peanut founder Amedeo Obici and his wife to be “salvaged.”

But, George stated in a Wednesday night email, City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn had understood through other conversations that the council wanted an update on the proposals, as well as the cost and process of relocating the structure or reusing its contents somewhere else.

Thursday’s announcement would seem to add another option to the menu for council to consider on Jan. 20. Rountree’s offer was in the form of an unsolicited proposal that will be considered on the same level as others the city has received, George said Thursday night.

“It is wonderful to hear that Mr. Rountree is willing to play such an active role in maintaining a piece of Suffolk’s history,” the city’s press release quotes Mayor Linda Johnson as saying. “It speaks volumes of his commitment, both as a Suffolk citizen and a business owner.”

The press release is a marked departure in the city’s prior handling of information regarding Obici House. Through the process of a request for proposals on the restoration and reuse of the building and again during the period since two unsolicited proposals were submitted, there never has been a release announcing the participants in the process or quoting city officials talking about the submitters.

Two groups had submitted plans to restore the 1920s Italianate home, but one of them, the Suffolk Professional Fire Fighters Union, rescinded its plan on Wednesday.

Lt. Mason Copeland, union president, said Thursday that the organization’s secretary had “been told by three different city officials” that any group wishing to restore and use the structure first would have to move it from its location next to the 18th hole of the Sleepy Hole Golf Course.

Reports that stated the group had received a letter to that effect from the city were incorrect, he said.

“We can’t afford to move this building,” he added. “Obviously, it was not meant to be, for us.”

Members of the other group that had submitted a proposal for restoring the building, Citizens for the Preservation of Obici House, were cautious about supporting Rountree’s offer on Thursday.

“Certainly, we would be interested to see just what type of plan Ronnie is proposing,” said Susan Blair, CPOH president.

Her group has proposed spending about $2.7 million to restore the structure and turn it into a fine-dining restaurant.

In a response to a request for more information about their proposal, CPOH leaders wrote to the city that they had spoken to Rountree, who, they said, “clearly stated that his position is that the restoration of the Obici House should begin and be completed as soon as possible; the reuse of the main structure as a restaurant was not of importance to his current or future operations; and, he had no interest in utilizing the restored Carriage House for office, storage or bar and grill space.”

Suffolk’s press release did not provide any details on Rountree’s proposal, and he could not be reached for comment Thursday night.