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Hotel Ponce de Leon - News - The St. Augustine Record - St. Augustine, FL

Veto leaves Flagler College $1 million short for resiliency project at Hotel Ponce de Leon

Many of the legislative priorities for St. Johns County survived the vetoes of Gov. Ron DeSantis last week, but one project in downtown St. Augustine did not.

A proposed $1.025 million resiliency project for the Hotel Ponce de Leon building on the campus of Flagler College was one of the casualties of the governor’s cuts. That leaves the college looking at other alternatives.

Beth Sweeny, the college’s director of Foundation and Government Relations Office of Institutional Advancement, said the money was slated to go toward improving and protecting the Hotel Ponce de Leon building, which suffered damage in Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Irma.

Built in 1888 by Henry Flagler, the building is a National Historic Landmark that now serves as the centerpiece for Flagler College.

“It was resiliency and preservation of the hotel,” Sweeny said. ”(After) some of the failings of the building in the recent storms, we kind of looked at what we needed to safeguard the building moving forward in the event of another storm like that.”

The proposed improvements included adding sump pumps in the basement level as well as installing hurricane protection on windows on the first floor of the Ponce.

While that might sound like a simple maintenance issue at a private college, the hotel is an important building for the city overall and accessible to the general public during regularly available tours.

“The argument we tried to make to the governor (was) that this is not just a college project,” Sweeny said. “This goes beyond. This building is a piece of history that has hundreds of thousands of visitors walk through it every year. It’s important even to the tourism industry and the economy of the local area.

“Our board and our president and everyone at the college takes it very seriously to upkeep the building and take care of it and preserve it.”

As for what the college will do now that officials there know money is not coming from the state, Sweeny said they are still assessing the situation. One thing they hope to do is establish some kind of trust fund to pay for the continuing needs of a campus full of historic buildings.

They will also try their luck again in the next budget year with state lawmakers.

“We’ll be right back to the Legislature in a few months,” Sweeny said. “We’re regrouping to see if we’re going to submit a similar proposal next (session) or if there is something else that really takes precedent.”

Flagler College has received grants in the past for historic preservation and will not be deterred from making its case in the future.

“It’s a different governor (from last year), and I think everyone was trying to figure out what his philosophy on vetoes was going to look like,” Sweeny said. “I don’t think (the veto) had anything to do with the merit of our project.

“I just think he just has a belief that higher education projects like this should be funded internally or through other revenue sources.”

For example, the University of Central Florida also had a $1.7 million project vetoed.

Overall, it was considered a good year for the county in gaining state assistance for local needs.

County administration spokesman Michael Ryan pointed to several successful projects supported by the new budget:

• State Road 313 right of way funding ($3.7 million)

• Ponte Vedra Beach intersection improvements funding ($500,000)

• Beach renourishment funding ($40.1 million in recurring funds from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and $9.8 million in nonrecurring funds from the General Revenue Fund)

• West Augustine septic to sewer funding ($350,000)

See The St. Augustine Record . . .