Lions Club Dominant

Long-time Crystal River Lions Club member Lewis Chandler hopes community members will rally around the idea of raising money to purchase property adjacent to the main Crystal River Lions Club in the historic depot building on North East Crystal Street.

Editor's Note: Due to a reporter's error, this story contained incorrect information about nonprofits not being able to own property, and was corrected.

For 50 years, the Crystal River Lions Club has been giving back to its city and Citrus County.

This time, the nonprofit is looking for its community to help get it a parking lot.

“If we lose this property, we lose all our parking,” said Lewis Chandler, 20-year Lions member and past president. “It’d be gone.”

Since 1991, the Lions have based its club inside two train cars at Crystal River's historic train depot, which they lease from the city for $1 a year.

Members restored the property with the help of state grants, and continue to maintain its grounds on the corner of Northeast Crystal Street and Northeast First Avenue.

CHIPS, Citrus Hearing Impaired Program Services, a nonprofit that provides hearing aids to children and adults, also operates out of a pair of other train cars at the 130-year-old station.

Problem is, Chandler said, there’s not much parking outside the groups' headquarters.

A couple of vehicles could squeeze in to park on what’s open on the city’s depot property, but there’s not enough room for even the 10 active Lions members who meet there twice a month.

Chandler said it would also be impossible to consider fitting the hundreds of motorists parking for the city’s popular events, like the Manatee Festival, or any of the ceremonies hosted at the depot for a Lions rental charge.

There is city parking available across Northeast Crystal Street, but the Lions argue it’s not big enough and the sometimes waterlogged walk is treacherous for their older members and guests, Chandler said.

So that’s why the Lions rely on a vacant piece of neighboring private property to handle its overflow parking.

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These two buildings have have been locked by property owners who own the land adjacent to the Crystal River Lions Club. Some members hope money can be raised to purchase the property and then donate the land back to the City of Crystal River.

Club members also use the 1.65-acre lot to sell event parking at $5 a spot, bringing in revenue the Lions then give it to local causes and organizations, like the Citrus County Abuse Shelter Association, or use to maintain the city’s depot — a yearly expense of several thousand dollars.

“We turn around and give it away,” Chandler said about the club’s at least $6,000 in annual donations. “It’s what we do.”

But the Lions Club's borrowed parking lot is under threat because the private parcel it sits on is back on the real-estate market. 

If it falls into the hands of an owner who won’t allow the Lions to use it, members fear they’ll have to relocate their club or give it up.

“That’s what we’re afraid of,” Chandler said.

Kevin Cunningham, broker and owner of RE/MAX Realty One, said the property’s owner, RMX SE LLC, of New York, listed the commercial plot last November. 

It was on the market before, starting in September 2017, but was unable to sell, Cunningham said. 

In June 2017, RMX bought the land for $104,300 from Cemex Construction Materials Florida LLC, which used to lease its former plot to the Lions Club since 2007, according to a prior Chronicle story.

Cunningham said he’s been acting as a liaison between the city, the Lions Club and RMX. 

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Pad locks have been placed on the doors of two buildings that are adjacent to the Crystal River Lions Club building on North East Crystal Street.

I’m just a messenger, and I do my best with the owners and explain to them because they’re not citizens of Crystal River, and they just have a piece of property they want to sell,” he said.

Last week, RMX padlocked its lot's two buildings the Lions Club has been using for office space and storage for lawn mowers and other groundskeeping equipment.

Doug Smith, a Lion of 50 years, said he and Cunningham had a productive meeting Monday and was allowed to retrieve his club’s items afterward.

“It was very well received,” Smith said about the talks about RMX’s intent for its lot. “There wasn’t any of this, ‘come up with the cash and get the hell out.’”

Cunningham said RMX has been negotiating with the Lions Club and Crystal River by dropping its asking price down about $20,000 to $115,000.

RMX is also willing to accept a 25-year financing plan, with a $35,000 down payment and a five-year balloon loan, Cunningham said.

“They’re fairly reasonable people to deal with,” Cunningham said. “They’ve tried everything they can to work with the city and Lions Club.”

Crystal River City Manager Ken Frink said the Lions Club has been a good partner in maintaining the city’s grounds, and his staff will help its members and guests find other places to park.

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The Crystal River Lions Club is a service organization that has provided providing assistance to many across the community for 50 years.

However, Frink said, it’s not worth the city investing in a parking lot when that property could be transformed into something more beneficial for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).

“I’m not a big fan of buying a lot for parking that’s going to be used a couple times a year,” Frink told the Chronicle Editorial Board on Wednesday. “It’s a valuable lot within the CRA, it’s one of the larger lots in the CRA that once developed will contribute significantly to the CRA.”

“We will definitely work for (the Lions) to make sure there’s ample parking,” Frink added. “We can stripe off plenty of on-street parking.”

Cunningham said he gets at least one inquiry a week from interested buyers looking to develop cellphone towers, retail offices and small RV parks.

An independent environmental firm also reported finding no dangerous levels of soil containments underneath where a cement plant once sat on the property, Cunningham said.

Time does appear to be running out for the Lions. Cunningham said RMX is considering fencing its lot off to restrict parking and show a more definitive boundary for potential buyers.

“It might get to that point,” Cunningham said. “They just want to draw they line on it and say, 'OK, we need to distinguish the properties in order to sell.'”

Lions Club officials are working to setup an account with a local bank to hold donations that will go toward the purchase, and the Lions would transfer ownership to Crystal River if it did acquire the land.

“A combination of anything and everything that we can to raise funds," Smith said. "I don’t really care whose name is on the paper, it’s the use that becomes important."

Those interested in donating to the Crystal River Lions Club's cause can contact its treasurer, Tonia Chandler, at 352-697-0102.

For information about the club and how to become a member, visit e-clubhouse.org/sites/crystalriverfl.

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.

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