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Whitmore Mansion operation struggling
The rough economy has affected the financial solvency of the historic Whitmore Mansion, which is turning to the city of Ceres and a private party investor for help.

Mansion owner Cary Pope said he has about six months' time to come up with a plan to keep the meeting place venue open since events no longer generate enough revenue to support operations. Operated by the Whitmore Mansion Foundation, the mansion and its grounds are rented out for weddings, private parties, company gatherings, community events and regional government socials.

"It's a situation we feel like we have under control right now," said Pope. "We have a private party...looking at a purchase and selling the land to the city for a park.

"I don't want to panic any of our customers who have booked dates for their special day. We have at least six months but we still expect to be operating indefinitely. I don't expect to skip a beat."

The Ceres City Council held a study session last week and directed staff to look into city acquisition of the vacant land to the south of the mansion for green space or a park. In 2008, the city approved construction of a 30-unit Victorian Village senior apartments for the same ground. The project required $6.2 million in funding through Stanco, a non-profit affordable housing corporation, but never materialized. In 2008 the city talked about assisting in the project by purchasing the land with redevelopment agency financing. The project never developed.

"Their first choice is to make that a park," said Cary Pope. "The ideal situation is for more green space."

Mayor Chris Vierra commented after the meeting that he never felt that senior housing made sense given the nature of the noise generated at the adjacent mansion by parties and concerts.

A city purchase of the undeveloped portion of the mansion property would enable Pope to reduce the mortgage debt. However, Vierra said it could take a year to do the necessary rezoning of the property in order to build a park at that location.

"We would have to rezone it and collect fees on new development for that park," said Vierra.

The Ceres City Council no longer has redevelopment agency funds at its disposal to use in partnering with the Popes. The state abolished all redevelopment agencies in California earlier this year. However, said Pope, the city does have "a pretty big park fund for acquisition of parks."

The city has not developed several park sites it already owns - such as the Lions Club Park off of River Road - because the city doesn't have the funds to develop and maintain them.

"It's not the construction of a park, it's the O&M (operations and maintenance) that gets you," said Mayor Vierra.

Pope would not disclose the investor who is considering a partnership but said he "feels like they want to do some more improvements even more so than what there is now." There is the possibility of developing a lot on the north part of the block and the idea of a restaurant has been tossed around.

Pope also would not elaborate on plans to file a legal action against Bank of America.

The 8,000-square-foot mansion was built in 1903 by Clinton Whitmore, the son of town founder Daniel Whitmore. Clinton Whitmore was involved in the formation of the Turlock Irrigation District. The house remained in the Whitmore family until Robert and Edna Whitmore sold it in 2005 to Cary and Nancy Pope. The mansion was remodeled in the 2007 Community Hospice Interior Design Showcase. In 2009 a foundation was formed to oversee its operation.