BEACON PHOTO/MARSHA MCLAUGHLIN
THE GEMS AT WORK — Kids and adults chow down in a watermelon-eating contest hosted by The Gems in Lake Helen on July 4.

Lake Helen’s beleaguered Creative Arts Café continues its winding journey to fulfilling the requirements of the $156,626 Volusia County ECHO grant given in 2004.

This time, Lake Helen’s city attorney has suggested the City Commission pull back from an effort to amend the scope of the ECHO grant to allow The Gems, a group of 10 longtime Lake Helen families, to operate a community center at the building, located in Blake Park in the heart of the city.

The effort to amend the grant, which the City Commission voted unanimously to abandon, would have been the second time the ECHO grant had been changed.

The grant was altered substantially in 2017, to allow the once-teen center to become 75 percent museum and 25 percent restaurant.

Eventually, restaurant visitors were counted as museum guests, although at that point the “museum” was a display in a small adjacent room.

But running a restaurant proved to be untenable for the city, as employees, including dishwashers and part-time cooks, had to be hired, and fired, by the Lake Helen City Commission. Eventually the restaurant was taken over by a series of private businesses, the latest of which closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, Volusia County voters opted to extend the ECHO grant program, which provides monies for environmental, cultural, historical, and outdoors capital projects (thus the acronym).

The voters’ extension, however, added a requirement that ECHO projects be audited annually. The Creative Arts Café was flagged as being in violation of restrictions associated with the grant — namely that it actually be open and operating.

In November 2021, searching for a way to keep the facility open and operating, the Lake Helen City Commission selected The Gems to handle the operation. The coalition of families has held several events, worked with the Lake Helen History Museum to open an auxiliary space, rented the facility to local community groups, and planted a Florida-friendly garden. But their first presentation to the ECHO Advisory Committee in July 2022 was blasted by board members. A second presentation on Jan. 12 was received more favorably, and the ECHO Advisory Committee planned a Jan. 26 meeting to tour the newly revamped building.

But later that night, the Lake Helen City Commission also met, and City Attorney Scott Simpson argued that, at this point, the Creative Arts Café actually isn’t in violation anymore.

“What I would suggest is, let’s withdraw the request to amend, and take the position that you’re in compliance with the restrictions,” Simpson told the City Commission.

“It’s no longer we have to convince them to change something or get their permission. They have the burden to prove that we are in violation of our covenants. How many times has the county done that? None. Zero,” Simpson said. “They’ve never gone after somebody to say they violated their covenants and they want their ECHO funds back.”

In some cases, an ECHO-funded project that is either not in compliance or has modified its function outside the scope of the grant has refunded the money (as in the case of the Dutton House in DeLand).

Attorney Simpson noted the peculiarity of the grant being amended to allow a restaurant at all.

“I can’t imagine they liked the idea, and I don’t know how they approve of using ECHO funds for a building for a for-profit restaurant. And this seems contrary to the concept of what ECHO is for,” Simpson said.

That being said, the change of scope made in 2017 is worded so that, Simpson argued, The Gems could easily fulfill the requirements, even if they haven’t already.

“If we switch this around, they already gave us permission to do community gathering space. We definitely have a museum and community gathering space,” Simpson said. “Teen area. What’s a teen area? How hard is that to do? We should be able to come up with a teen area.”

Simpson pointed out the grant language doesn’t require a sit-down restaurant with tables, or alcohol service, or even hours of operation.

“If we were to scale the restaurant back and say for instance it was a … concession stand — some candies, some chips, some cookies, bring out a grill, cook hot dogs and hamburgers,” he added. “I just don’t see the county trying to say we’re in violation of these restrictions, which are very vague, broadly worded, and not very specific.”

If the county doesn’t agree with Lake Helen’s stance that the Creative Arts Café is now in compliance, Simpson outlined what could happen. First, the county could sue to collect the money, which would trigger a joint meeting with the Lake Helen City Commission and the Volusia County Council.

“Option two, the county could say yes you’re in violation, we’re revoking the money but not collecting it … but you are not eligible for any additional grants from the county,” Simpson said, adding that in that case, the city would sue the county. “We still end up at that meeting, which I think is gonna be very beneficial.”

The City Commission voted unanimously to accept the recommendation.

A planned Jan. 26 visit by the ECHO Advisory Committee is still scheduled.

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