Summit Historical Society members, miffed that town officials recently acquired their renovated train depot headquarters in what they say was a unilateral move by a member who exceeded her authority, pleaded with the town council Tuesday for a new lease on the building.
Town officials ultimately seemed receptive to the proposal — as long as the historical society reorganizes itself.
Society representative Ganeath Daniel, who was president when the organization received the donated and dilapidated former Liberty-White Railroad depot and had it moved from Holmesville and renovated about 10 years ago, said members were shocked to learn it had been given to the town in late March.
That’s when another member, Trudy Berger, asked officials to execute a reverter clause in a 99-year lease, saying the historical society hadn’t met in years and was no longer active.
“We opened the Enterprise-Journal and saw that our depot was gone. The key words were ‘Summit takes over depot,’ ” Daniel said. “This is how we found this out.”
Without identifying Berger by name, Daniel said she exceeded her authority by giving away the depot, unsuccessfully attempting to close the organization’s bank account and handing over what money was left in it to the town. She did manage to remove the organization’s charter from the Secretary of State’s listings of registered nonprofits, Daniel said.
Daniel said the bank account couldn’t be closed because her name is still on it. She said the historical society remains an active organization.
“We have money in our account right now, and at the present time all of our bills have been paid,” she said. “We have membership dues that are coming in.”
Daniel said the group met Monday night and overwhelmingly voted to seek to retake possession of the depot.
“We reject the idea that one individual was able to engineer a series of events in order to disenfranchise our society,” she said.
Berger has said the depot needs more work than what the historical society — especially as inactive as it has been — can provide. She said the building was never given to the historical society in the first place, but to her cousin, Hudora Lewman, who received it from Sue White.
Tonya Moore said she and her husband Billy worked with Berger and Lewman to restore the depot, while many of the historical society members who were up in arms Tuesday night did not, nor did they volunteer at shrimp boil fundraisers for the building.
“When we started working on it you didn’t see anybody,” she told the Enterprise-Journal on Thursday. “We worked our butts off. The real people worked and had their hearts in it and we wanted to do the right thing.”
She said Berger had sought for someone to take over the depot but found no one interested.
“Where were you when we were trying to give it to you?” Moore asked rhetorically. “We went to all of these people that are all throwing her under the bus and if it hadn’t been for Trudy, I’m telling you, they wouldn’t have it.”
Moore said Berger’s move to have the town take over the building was the responsible thing to do, given the lack of interest and funds to maintain it over the years.
“We’ve just gotten too old and it was time to let the town take it over,” she said. “We didn’t have any other choice. We only had $6,000 left in the checking account. Once we paid the insurance, once we paid the electrical bill, it would have been gone.”
But Daniel said the society is resurgent and reorganizing in the wake of the developments. She warned that the depot “may be a Trojan horse” for the town in terms of its high-maintenance potential.
“A citizen of Summit can only wonder why the town would want to take on the expense of the depot ... while the city coffers are over extended right now and the city is considering a tax increase,” she said, warning that there will be “an extended disagreement between the city and the members of the historical society” as long as the town keeps the depot.
“It could lead to unintended repercussions,” she said.
Daniel asked the council to rescind its action, but board attorney Wayne Dowdy said that would procedurally be impossible. He said the town can enact a longterm lease, as it did in this case — 99 years for $10.
“Under state law, the property is owned and has been owned for a long time by the Town of Summit,” he said. “This governing body is allowed to enter into a longterm lease with that body.
“It had a clause required by state law that if you ... do not use this property by a term of two years, by state law it is required to revert back to the Town of Summit.”
Dowdy said town officials would have been “derelict in their duty” had they not taken the property over based on the information they received.
“You were given erroneous information,” historical society member Christy Holloway said.
Dowdy said the town can enter into a new lease but the property would be subject to public use. “They cannot rescind something they did a while back, but they absolutely have the discretion to enter into a new lease agreement,” he said.
Councilman Daryl Porter Jr. asked how many members the society had and Daniel said there are “38 dues-paying members and a lot of inactive members because the person who as responsible for mailing out dues notices passed away.”
Porter received an applause from the audience when he said he’d support drawing up a new lease.
“We don’t have an issue with drawing up a new lease and leasing it back to you under those same terms,” Porter said.
Dowdy noted that the organization would have to recharter with the Secretary of State before that can happen.
The news pleased historical society members.
“You’re for Summit, we’re for Summit, so it’s good for us to work together,” Daniel said.