The CEO of the organization that is deeding over the Lula train depot to the city is speaking out to set the record straight on a transaction she describes as a generous donation and not a sale.
Mere Barbee told The Times that the property is valued at 20 times more than the $9,000 the city is giving to the Lula Area Betterment Association, which she says merely reimburses the group for $5,000 in equipment members purchased and is staying with the property, along with $4,000 to pay legal fees associated with the transaction.
Barbee told The Times she has not gotten around to traveling to Gainesville to sign the contract and expressed her desire that city officials would hold some kind of ceremony whereby they would recognize the donation and allow LABA members to hand over the the key to the property along with the executed contract.
“The $5,000 has nothing to do with the building, the grounds and the rest, the $5,000 pays for the equipment — the tables, chairs, sound system… and all that money will be donated to a charitable organization,” Barbee said. “They are not purchasing the building. What I’m asking they do is wait until we’ve signed it, then be friendly to us because that building is valued at $180,000.”
Barbee said LABA originally asked for $60,000 from the city for the property, which it would not pay. The price went down to $25,000, and city officials balked at that offer because records could not be found to establish a clear title to the property. The pending contract is for a quick-claim deed, which the city has signed.
“We’re old, we’re tired and we don’t want to do this anymore,” Barbee said. “We’ve been doing this for 40-something years as volunteers. We’re not paid. We put in our own money. I was in with the original group when we built the building, so I go back a long time. It’s really hard for us to give up our building, but we’d like a little credit. They are not purchasing anything. We just want it to be a happy occasion.”
The outspoken Barbee, a seasoned businesswoman, candidly said there’s no love lost between her and some members of City Council.
“They don’t like me and I sure don’t like them,” she said.
City Manager Dennis Bergin said Sunday that the contract specifically calls the transaction a donation.
“The city clearly appreciates the donation of the grounds and the building that LABA has donated to us,” Bergin said, adding that the money going to the organization “will take care of the legal fees and the equipment and furnishings.”
Bergin said the city already has posted public notice of the city’s “appreciation of the work that LABA has done for the community.”
Bergin said he’s confident that City Council would welcome “the opportunity to have a celebration with the exchange of the ownership and give the community an opportunity to again express our thanks.”
Bergin recently told The Times that the city would begin in January renovating the train depot, which is rented out for meetings, weddings and other occasions. The property also is home to the city’s popular Railroad Days Festival that’s been held for more than 40 years.