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Updated: 08/18/2014 02:54:33PM

Saving the Depot: Historic Society speaks

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The room at the Lake Wales City Commission meeting last week got a little restless when Nick Smith spoke on behalf of the Historic Society and the Depot Museum, telling commissioners that if they did not allow the museum to sell two of its rail cars to raise money to keep the Depot open, then the Depot would be forced to sell all assets, and the city would be left “with an empty shell.”

Reid Hardman, son of Depot director Mimi Hardman, says that his mother’s 40-year commitment to document “our collective history speaks for itself. Through the Depot Museum and the Historic Society she has demonstrated such great care in preserving the story of Lake Wales and advocating for its contemporary relevance. Any suggestion to liquidate the Historic Society’s assets should not be taken seriously. Everyone knows this is nonsense.”

Reid says that at the last board meeting in February, there was only one person advocating this as some sort of solution to preserving local history.

“It wasn’t Mimi. Were the city to close the buildings temporarily to reorganize this vital asset, there’s nothing that requires a single artifact to be relocated. Items on loan are under no threat either of course. Is there any scenario where the rest of us would sit by and watch our cultural heritage lost? Of course not. It is my expectation that the Depot Museum will remain and our history kept forever close, right where it is.”

But Nick Smith isn’t the only one who has his eyes on the future of the Depot.

Mimi Reid Hardman has great community support, and the Historic Society has long stood beside her, yet for the most part, fall strangely silent when asked about Smith’s comments at the commission.

Jack Neal, one of the Society’s members, says that Hardman owns many of the artifacts herself.

“I didn’t like the threatening of the commission,” he notes of Smith, but added “he got results, though. I think they all wanted to keep it open anyway, but money has been short.”

He says that maybe the city can organize a task force, and noted that Hardman has had the Depot for so long, “the Depot is her.”

Meanwhile, by phone interview as she tended business at her nearby funeral home, Society member Linda Johnson said she supports selling the trains.

“A caboose is a caboose,” she said, noting that when she was growing up in Winter Park, the type of train the Depot has was known as a work train. There is one that is a passenger car, the one that people would attach to the back of the train as their private car.

She thinks the engine should be sold so it can help run the Depot, “so the city is not under pressure.”

Johnson has her own fond memories of the Depot, for it is there that she took calligraphy and watercolor classes. A well-known artist in these parts, she adds, “If I didn’t have the opportunity to do that, I wouldn’t have been where I am today.”

“It is beneficial to the community,” she said, noting that the Depot is on the Historic Architecture tour. “There are people that come here to see the houses and the building. There is history here.

“Lake Wales is not influenced by Tampa or Orlando. It has its own personality and it is an agricultural community.”

She admits that more must be done to keep the Depot open. “We are biding time,” she said.

Care Center Executive Director Rob Quam served on the board for a while.

“When any entity, whether a business, family, or nonprofit, when your expenses are more than your income, you have to increase your income and decrease expenses,” he said.

Yet, he admits the Depot runs on “a very bare bones budget.”

Hardman donates her time.

“Based on that they do a pretty good job keeping expenses to bare bones,” he says.

“My opinion is that the value of the Historical Society and Depot is important to our community for all of us to value our history, so I would hate to see it go away,” he said.

Quam resigned from the board because he says he felt he was not “investing enough of my time and energy to help the cause, and I felt like there maybe needed to be some new blood.”

He suggests a strong board leadership to rally around Hardman.

Deming Cowles, who was active on the board until February, says the board is set to meet with City Manager Ken Fields on Thursday this week at the Depot Children’s Museum.

“And hopefully we will get a game plan that is constructive,” he said.

“I think our approach needs to be different, but you don’t lead with your left,” he said.

He was not in favor of selling the train cars until he realized that they were not native to Lake Wales.

“This is really about the Historical Society and the importance of Lake Wales,” he noted.

Attorney Jay McClendon served about a year on the Society. “It’s got some overhead expenses,” he notes. He suggests perhaps reducing the hours the Depot is open, adding he is not sure if the Depot pays any staff and says the Society needs to “assess the most conservative” plan to keep the doors open.

He also said the possibility needs to be considered that the Depot may close, and as such, there needs to be a plan.

The best thing about the Depot, he notes, is that “it preserves little snippets of Lake Wales’ cultural history,” noting that over time, those snippets “will become more ancient and rare, and more valuable.”

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