Spring Hill's Board of Mayor and Aldermen discussed Monday night the idea of terminating its relationship with Rippavilla Inc., the nonprofit organization that manages the historic site.
Rippavila has been owned by the city of Spring Hill since early 2017.
The discussion sparked a heated back and forth between Spring Hill Vice Mayor Amy Wurth and Rippavilla Inc. leadership, with city leaders set to vote on the termination on Monday, Jan. 18.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Rippavilla Plantation had operated since 2007 on an annual $100,000 donation from the nearby General Motors Plant. That annual donation ended in 2016, with the city of Spring Hill accepting Rippavilla Inc.'s proposal in 2017 to take ownership of the property, with Rippavilla Inc. still running day to day operations.
The city supplied Rippavilla Inc. with $100,000 annually — plus additional funds for maintenance and repairs — for years, with some city leaders questioning Rippavilla Inc.'s ability to make the property financially self-sustaining as of late.
Proposed by Alderman Matt Fitterer, the proposal to terminate the city's relationship with Rippavilla Inc. would be effective 90 days following its approval. Rippavilla Inc. staff have instead requested to be given 90 days to see the implementation of a new strategy given its recent change of staff.
Monday night's discussion
Chairman of the Rippavilla Board of Directors, Faris Wheatly, spoke to city leaders Monday night during the virtual nonvoting BOMA meeting as to what she considered to be a "misunderstanding" between the city and Rippavilla Inc.
"We feel like as a board that it's been a misunderstanding between us and the city as far as what has been expected from both parties," Wheatly said.
"There's never been an unwillingness at transparency, but we do feel like there has been a lack of communication, so we ask that going forward that any request that the city has of Rippavilla be emailed to [Rippavilla Interim Director] Scott Smith and also to myself."
Wheatly pointed to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as a reason for the plantation's recent drop in revenue, but noted that recent changes to staff had demonstrated Rippavilla Inc.'s dedication to being fiscally responsible, such as the consolidation of four positions that Wheatly said resulted in just over $4,000 in savings a month.
Ashley McAnulty, a sitting member on the Rippavilla Board of Directors, agreed with Wheatly that the city and Rippavilla Inc. had experienced a "lack of communication," and also pointed to the ongoing pandemic as a significant factor in recent revenue dips.
Vice Mayor Wurth pressed Wheatly as to why previous asked questions about the plantation's finances she had sent via email remained unanswered.
"In these questions, a lot of them you noted that there was an issue in sharing the information; I asked about your donations and grants that directly relate to your budget, and I was not privy to that information," Wurth said. "Is that something you can provide to the city?
"We feel comfortable as a board providing donation numbers, not names, just to protect some of our donors," Wheatly answered.
Unsatisfied with this response, Wurth pressed Wheatly as to why the financials of a city-owned property were receiving "pushback" from Rippavilla Inc. staff. Wurth also highlighted the fact that Rippavilla Inc. had altered a sign outside the plantation with no communication or consent of the city.
"There's still a lot of information that wasn't answered; understanding the gift shop operations, I still can't for the life of me understand how the gift shop is being managed, what vendors are selling out of the gift shop... none of this is making sense," Wurth said.
"Changing the name of our asset - how does that happen and there's no discussion with the city? There's been no explanation to that. We name properties that we own, BOMA has the opportunity to do that, but that did not happen with the renaming of Rippavilla."
"I would like to say that the gift shop is not a city-owned asset, Rippavilla Inc. pays the property taxes on that," Wheatly responded. "All of the revenue from the gift shop is [from] Rippavilla Inc., not anything that is with the board."
Wurth pushed back against Whitley's characterization of what city leaders should and should not be privy to regarding the plantation's finances, while also reminding Whitely of who ultimately held ownership of the property.
"While we may not have access to all of the profits and financials on the gift shop, understand that we own the property — you're the tenant," Wurth said.
"We're providing a cash flow to you all that is being used throughout the property, so these questions are not out of the ordinary. We need to understand this so we can make better decisions on our side given that we are the property owner."
As discussions over the gift shop continued, talks would often drift back to the pandemic's effect on the property's finances. Alderman Fitterer jumped in to voice his belief that this had been a longstanding problem.
"There's a lot of discussion about COVID-19 this, COVID-19 that... I just want to be perfectly clear from my perspective, this isn't about the past year, this has been an ongoing problem at Rippavilla even before the city took ownership of the property," Fitterer said.
"I'm just hard pressed to believe that in 30 or 90 days any plan is going to reverse the 10-plus years of history and financial performance."
In response, McAnulty argued that the Rippavilla Inc. as it exists today is completely different as it was in the past.
"Ten years, the organization has not had the same mission, direction or even the involvement from the board that they've had in the last three or four months, so it's a different day at Rippavilla," McAnulty said.
"I'm not sure that I would classify it as a 10-year failure because if you've seen some of the reporting coming out of the organization, it's made great progress."
The BOMA will vote on whether to terminate its relationship with Rippavilla Inc. at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 18.
To stream that meeting online, click here. Spring Hill residents wishing to have their comments heard during the meeting are asked to submit them via email to [email protected], and to include their name and address for public record.