creative arts cafe lake helen overhead shot
PHOTO COURTESY GOOGLE EARTH VIA VOLUSIA COUNTY HEART OF LAKE HELEN — The red pin on this Google Earth view shows the location of the Creative Arts Café in the heart of Lake Helen, just on the edge of Blake Park. The city has a new plan for the restaurant/museum/community center, but the ECHO Advisory Committee was not impressed. The city has until October to rework the plan.

A proposal for new activity at the Creative Arts Café in Lake Helen was criticized harshly by some Volusia County ECHO Advisory Committee members at a July 14 meeting.

For years, the Creative Arts Café has skirted the edges of fulfilling the ECHO grant requirements, that, if not followed under a 40-year restrictive covenant, would mean the City of Lake Helen would have to pay the entire grant amount of $156,626 back to the county.

The ECHO grant program originally provided the funds in 2004 for a teen center and cultural-arts center, but, over the years, the Creative Arts Café slowly transformed into a restaurant that was ultimately taken over by private businesses.

In 2017, Lake Helen requested and received a change of scope for the grant requirements, to allow the building to operate as 75 percent restaurant and 25 percent museum. A small adjacent room served as a “museum,” and diners were counted as museum visitors.

The building has been out of compliance with ECHO since 2020, when the last privately owned restaurant pulled out due to COVID-19, and there was no longer public access to the facility.

The new proposal would see The Gems, a group of 10 longtime Lake Helen families whose members are known for their volunteer work, take over and operate the building as a community center.

The City Commission has already selected the nonprofit group, and entered into a management agreement with them.

City Administrator Lee Evett was in attendance at the July 14 ECHO meeting, along with a slew of Lake Helen officials and those involved in the new project, to plead their case for another change in scope.

The request was to switch the percentages — in other words, 75 percent museum and 25 percent restaurant. The ECHO Advisory Committee would then send its recommendations on whether to accept or reject the proposal to the Volusia County Council.

The Creative Arts Café, at 493 S. Lakeview Drive, is located on property that includes Blake Park in the center of the city. The location means it is ideally situated to become a community hub, Lake Helen officials told the ECHO committee.

The main thrust of the proposal was to allow The Gems to run the building as a community center that would host events like bingo nights and chili cook-offs, and offer community services such as free health clinics.

“Our commitment to you is what we want to straighten out — we know we are not in good graces,” Evett told the committee. “We want to get ourselves back in good graces.”

But the proposal quickly received pushback.

“The Creative Arts Café was, in fact, supposed to be creative arts, which was ECHO. But community centers — we don’t fund community centers,” Committee Chair Pat Northey said at the outset of the conversation.

Northey pointed out there is already a history museum in Lake Helen City Hall, and she also noted the latest proposal for the Creative Arts Café does not include regular open hours, but rather, openings only for special events and possible future bookings for private events.

The Gems have had control of the building for about a month-and-a-half, and, so far, have had a few exercise programs and a watermelon-eating contest. They also hosted three private events, including a children’s birthday party.

“So, Joe Sixpack couldn’t drive into Lake Helen and go look at the history museum?” Northey asked.

“They could, by going to our museum and asking them to go there to see things,” Evett replied, referring to the City Hall museum.

“Why do you have two museums?” Committee Member Jack Surrette asked.

Evett explained there is a wealth of historical information and memorabilia in the city.

Northey’s questions were the beginning of many questions.

Committee Member Jeffrey Ault pointed out that ECHO provided another grant to the City of Lake Helen for the restoration of Hopkins Hall, which is used as a community center that can be booked for activities.

Hopkins Hall is a pristine older building, Evett replied, and is used only for very formal events.

“You’re talking about the restaurant Café 25 percent, Lake Helen history museum 75 percent,” Ault said. “But that never really happened. You know, the museum was one wall with a few photos on it and some bookshelves.”

Evett argued that some American Rescue Plan money provided by the federal government during COVID-19 shutdowns would be invested into the museum.

“Maybe it started out as a good idea back in 2004,” Committee Vice Chair Gerard Pendergast said. “I think we’ve deviated so far from the plan. … We tried this — the original grant didn’t work.”

“I think the original grant worked very well,” Evett replied.

“Oh, come on. Why are we here today?” Pendergast said.

“Because quite frankly, the person who put it together retired, and that was the spirit of the center,” Evett said, referring to former Police Chief Keith Chester, who spearheaded the original teen center.

“I was here in 2017. The city put forth a very compelling presentation. The staff that came forward were very, very credible, believable, and none of them are here today,” Pendergast said of the 2017 change-in-scope request. “The city and the community should be working together. But maybe ECHO should be moving on.”

Evett had no immediate reply.

Lake Helen City Commission meetings often have a freewheeling atmosphere that is in marked contrast to other local governmental meetings, which are more highly regimented, and elements of that disparity were also on display at the ECHO meeting.

Among the cast of Lake Helenites who spoke — including City Commissioners Heather Rutledge and Rick Basso, and former Mayor Buddy Snowden — was current Mayor Cameron Lane.

“I have been a big supporter of the arts,” Lane said. He detailed his time in stage productions, including a stint as Pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

“You won’t find anybody who is more culturally sensitive than me, I don’t think,” Lane said.

Lane made Lake Helen’s case to the committee.

“You mentioned that none of the staff is here. That’s right: COVID ran us into the ground. Nearly all of our staff from public works to City Hall has turned over in the last two years. It’s been rough,” Lane said. “If you want to go to a large city and see a beautiful presentation put before you that crosses every T and dots every I — Lake Helen can’t produce that. We’re a small city. We are hanging out by the skin of our teeth most of the time, but we are doing the dead level best we can.”

The committee appeared to be mostly unimpressed.

“I see the passion, and I see the need and the whole community arrangement. But you know, to call this a cultural project is a bit of a stretch. And to call it a historic project is a real reach,” Surrette said.

“We’ve been pretty successful at keeping our projects alive, for 20 years, 40 years these things — that’s how we do it,” Surrette said. “And this one project has stood alone as a problem.”

The committee allowed the proposal to be tabled until October, to give Lake Helen time to make adjustments to the plan.

That night, before the beginning of a regular Lake Helen City Commission meeting, Evett can be heard on a recording summarizing the ECHO meeting.

“It was not a good day,” he told one resident.


  1. It is my understanding, after the ECHO committee approved the changes from the original grant in 2017 to allow a museum and restaurant operation, the museum portion was inspected and approved by the County’s ECHO staff. So to now make an issue of how minimalist the museum portion was is a bit after the fact. Additionally, members of the County’s staff, who are charged with overseeing the ECHO program, met with officials at Lake Helen and they reviewed the new planned changes and it is my understanding the County’s staff was to have indicated to Lake Helen’s officials the planned changes were acceptable and within the guidelines of the ECHO grant program. It appears something very similar recently happened with another ECHO grant for the Dutton Mansion that was out of compliance with its original ECHO grant obligations. Again ECHO staff guided members of the Dutton House Board and that whole scenario went awry as well. I have been speaking out about ECHO grant compliance issues for many years and have been getting the run around and a song and dance from the County’s staff and some ECHO program supporters. The County’s staff is responsible for holding those groups and organizations who are receiving our tax dollars accountable and in my opinion they have failed us. Lake Helen should not be off the hook here, however, I want everyone to know there is much more to this story and there are deficiencies within the ECHO grant program that need to be fixed. The ECHO grant program has been treated as a sacred cow and used as a political slush fund for far to long with to many behind the scenes dealings. I think before we start making an example of Lake Helen’s failures, some of which I will take blame for, we need to start digging a bit deeper and looking at the history of ECHO and how the money has been used and the special exceptions that have been granted.


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