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The Gems, a group of 10 longtime Lake Helen families, beat out two other proposals for rental of the Creative Arts Café, a prominent building in the heart of Lake Helen that has gone through several iterations. 

The Gems was selected over an impressive and detailed proposal by Shoestring Theatre, and a heartfelt plan for a front-porch-style café submitted by Maria Hardwick, owner of Power Volleyball Academy, and Market in the Park Director Karen Garyantes.

Although the Gems had the most ideas and the least details in their proposal, theirs was chosen as the top plan by four of the five city commissioners. 

Zone 3 City Commissioner Rick Basso abstained from the vote, as his son is a member of one of the 10 families that make up the Gems.

The Gems plan, among other things, encompasses the original purpose of the building: as a cultural-arts center for teenagers.

Residents and the Lake Helen City Commission selected the Gems, they said, because of years of service, volunteer work, and support the families have provided to the city.

Details of the rental agreement are still being negotiated. 

The families are represented by Alan and Dasha Cooke, Buddy and Tennille Collins, Ricky and Chenin Basso, Justin and Sheena Blinn, Chen and Paula Cuda, Joey and Niki Decker, Mike and Julie Hickox, Dan McCarrick and Cathy Cole, Ryan and Jill Wilkins, and Tom Sr., Brian and Thomas Jr. Pugliese. 

A bit of Creative Arts Café history 

Originally a cultural-arts center with a snack bar designed to serve teenagers, the Creative Arts Center opened in 2007. The building’s renovation was funded in part by $156,000 in ECHO grant funds. 

Over the years, the teen center slowly transformed into a full-fledged restaurant, called Creative Arts Café, much to the chagrin of city commissioners who found themselves in the position of running a restaurant — and badly at that. The city’s police chief was serving as head chef.

According to news reports at the time, the restaurant business was costing the city upward of $10,000 a month in losses when city commissioners voted 4-1 to shut down the restaurant and seek out a private enterprise to take over in March of 2014.

As usual, the entire endeavor was rife with controversy. The city administrator, city clerk and several city staff members either quit or were booted, and the town was bitterly divided over whether keeping the restaurant open was a good idea. 

The city leased the facility to a restaurateur in December 2014, but that eatery, Sandy’s Diner, shut its doors in August 2016.

In May 2017, Decker’s Lake Helen Grill opened. They, too, had trouble making ends meet, and closed down in September 2019. 

Most recently, the building housed Sinatra’s Lost in Time Café, which opened right before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and closed shortly thereafter. 

To continue abiding by the rules of the ECHO grant, throughout the iterations of restaurants, a small historical museum/multi-purpose room was kept open in the building. Diners were also counted as museum visitors.

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