Jeffrey Mansion plan goes forward

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Bexley City Council on May 13 passed a resolution accepting the master plan for Jeffrey Mansion and Park renovations, but that doesn’t mean the dirt is going to fly any time soon, members assured residents.

The resolution does not entail "any financial obligation, changes no policies, changes nothing of the physical geography" of the 102-year-old mansion and park, Councilman Jeff McClelland, representative to the Jeffrey Mansion Commission, explained.

"Don’t go home concerned that trees are going down tomorrow, or that seven or ten million dollars is going to be spent," Councilman Mark Masser added. "The real question is, what does the future really hold?"

The commission plan recommends a make-over of the mansion and grounds costing up to $10  million, to expand available space for recreation programs and private rental events that would increase revenue.

Under this plan, management would be the responsibility of a public-private partnership with a new mansion board.

A major impetus for the plan has been the need to generate funds for the ongoing maintenance of the building, deeded to the city by the Jeffrey family in 1942.

"We would like it to be self-sustaining. We think it can be self-sustaining," McClelland said.

Attracting more rentals would require expanding parking into wooded areas and allowing alcohol to be served, the report states. These have been points of disagreement with numerous residents.

Others have cast doubts on the financial plan presented by Pete Halliday, chairman of the Bexley Heritage Fund and a driving force behind the study.

Halliday has pledged to raise $12 million for the project, and has presented three financial scenarios for council to consider. His idea is to have the city pay the interest on the loan to restore the mansion, with donors paying the principal. Revenue from rentals would cover ongoing maintenance.

He presented letters from two local event planners who said his estimates for potential revenue were "conservative."

Halliday also provided letters from arborists from Dawes Arboretum and Ahlum & Arbor Tree Preservationists in support of plans for the mansion grounds.

He noted that the Heritage Fund brought the issue to the table in 2000.

"Now we’re getting a plan at the last minute because people think the plan is set in steel, which it isn’t," he said.

Halliday was referring to an alternative plan presented at the meeting by Joyce Katz, of Friends of Jeffrey Park and Mansion.

The biggest difference is that the commission plan would turn the mansion into "a commercial venture," Katz claimed, a characterization McClelland said he disagreed with.

Otherwise, McClelland said he didn’t see much difference in the two plans, and that there isn’t much in the latest addition that couldn’t be considered.

The Friends of Jeffrey Park plan recommends that the managing board be made up solely of Bexley residents, instead of allowing the six non-residents in the commission plan.

It also calls for a vote by residents before the city goes into debt for the project.

Resident Harvey Wasserman agreed with this provision. "Don’t put the community at financial risk without a vote."

One resident, Gary Gudmundson, said he doesn’t think the mansion needs to be saved, and that it should be razed to make way for a new community center.

"Open your eyes, open your mind, open up the process again to find out what the entire community wants to do with the mansion," Gudmundson said.

Most residents asked that all opinions be heard as the planning continues.

"The one thing you have to promise us is open-mindedness," Barb Greiner,  resident and a city recreation supervisor since 1989, asked.

Chris Masoner, a longtime recreation board member, pointed out that a goal of the plan is to increase available space for recreation activities within the mansion, by renovating the basement and third floor.

In the last 20 years, the useable space has decreased from 18,000 to 8,700 square feet due to deterioration, he noted. In the same period, maintenance costs have increased from $100,000 to $400,000 a year.

The mansion will remain a community building, he pledged. "We’re not going to put out a neon sign that says ‘Rent me.’"

The next step, according to Council President Matt Lampke, will be to create the mansion board and set the parameters of its authority.

"Now the hard work starts," McClelland said.

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