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City in escrow for Whitmore mansion
With the historic Clinton Whitmore Mansion heading toward almost certain city ownership, the Ceres City Council met Monday and pondered its future uses as well as operations and maintenance.

Bank of America has accepted the city's short sale offer of $375,000 for the historic property. Escrow is expected to close by Dec. 14, said City Attorney Mike Lyions, with the city using park funds for the acquisition. Owners Cary and Nancy Pope have lost the property to foreclosure after struggling to profitably operate the 109-year-old mansion and grounds as an event venue, notably for weddings and private functions.

During Monday's Study Session, councilmembers took a cursory glance at a heavy list of questions and decided to defer discussion to a subcommittee to tackle an interim plan of operation. Councilman Eric Ingwerson and Vice Mayor Ken Lane were named to the subcommittee which will develop a preliminary plan at the Dec. 10 council meeting.

"There are a lot of issues," acknowledged Acting City Manager Art deWerk. Mayor Chris Vierra agreed, saying "a lot of these questions have varying paths depending on which direction we go."

City officials say the city cannot afford to operate nor maintain the facility but is interested in leasing the facility to the Whitmore Mansion Foundation to oversee operations. The group would possibly contract operation to a vendor. Lisa Mantarro Moore, chair of the Whitmore Mansion Foundation, said the Popes appear to be interested in operating the facility as vendors of the center.

The Foundation is a 503C non-profit organization.

"An interim solution could be a long term solution if it works out," said Vierra.

The council expressed a desire to honor all wedding, party and special gathering bookings made at the mansion by the Popes.

"If we don't have a plan in place we may have to .... moth-ball that facility until a plan of action is developed," suggested Councilman Eric Ingwerson.

DeWerk said the city is not taking over the Pope's business enterprise, which is legally responsible to honor commitments. The Popes, he said, will "stay with the program and they're enthusiastic about the idea."

Moore said a "well addressed discussion" is needed to develop both short- and long-term plans to operate the mansion.

"We don't want to jump into it and take the wrong path," said Moore. "But I don't think it's too large a task."

Once the city takes ownership, deWerk said the city intends to seek the home's placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city of Ceres wants to possession the mansion - located between Fifth and Sixth streets north of North Street -- in order to preserve it for historical reasons. The mansion is also considered an asset to the downtown area.

The 8,000-square-foot mansion was built in 1903 by Clinton Whitmore, the son of Ceres founder Daniel Whitmore. The house remained in the Whitmore family until Robert and Edna Whitmore sold it in 2005 to Cary and Nancy Pope.

The Popes paid $1.3 million for the mansion property in 2005. City officials said the Popes have an unpaid balance of $850,000 on the BofA mortgage and there is a second and third loan of $350,000 and $75,000 respectively. The junior lienholders agreed to the short sale price for the deal to occur.

The mansion is one block north of the Daniel Whitmore Home, which is owned by the city as the historic first residence ever built in Ceres.