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City eyes Whitmore Mansion acquisition
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Dreams of city leaders to either own or improve the Clinton Whitmore Mansion may have gone up with a puff of smoke with the loss of redevelopment agency dollars.

Mayor Chris Vierra acknowledged last week that the City Council has been meeting in closed session to explore the acquisition of the mansion - located between Fifth and Sixth streets north of North Street - from Cary and Nancy Pope.

The closed door negotiations was revealed in a staff report on an agenda item on whether the city should seek a federal grant to improve the mansion property.

"I don't know if that was supposed to be in the staff report," said Mayor Chris Vierra, "since we've been discussing this item in closed session."

The council voted Jan. 23 to apply for between $25,000 and $150,000 in grant funds from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). If awarded, the city would have to put up a dollar-for-dollar match.

Vierra said the city was hopeful in using funds from the Ceres Redevelopment Agency to either buy or assist in the continued development of the historic three-acre property. However the governor and state Legislature is on a course to dismantle all redevelopment agencies in California to seize cash to balance the state budget. Local government officials are hopeful that the state will offer follow-up legislation to keep RDA activity going but on a smaller scale. Vierra said the loss of redevelopment funds will make it very difficult for Ceres to help reduce blight in older areas of town, such as downtown.

"With redevelopment gone, that may not be coming to fruition," said Vierra.

"If we have no ability to acquire that property ... yes it would be very diffcult to spend taxpayer money on a master plan for a private entity."

Vierra, however, won't rule out that the council will consider spending $25,000 to make improvements that would help revitalize the downtown area. The staff report indicated that the project could be renamed the Historic Whitmore Mansion Cultural Arts Center for which features like an outdoor community amphitheatre, community garden or park and education center may be constructed.

City leaders feel that city ownership of the mansion would prevent other types of development, including multi-family residential units, from encroaching. He said the vacant parcel to the south of the mansion could be filled with apartments, which "may not be condusive" to the uses at the historic property.

The house was built in 1903 by Clinton Whitmore, son of Ceres town founder Daniel C. Whitmore. It was purchased by the Popes from Robert Whitmore and restored. Today the two-story mansion and grounds is used for weddings, community functions, concert events and private receptions.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza's office made city officials aware of the NEA Our Town Grant, believing the funds would be a good use for the house. The grants are awarded on the basis of a highly competitive process.

The grant requires two primary partners, a non-profit organization and a local government agency.