Gordon Lee Mansion's catering fees increase

Gordon Lee Mansion's catering fees increase

April 18th, 2012 by Mike O'Neal in Walker

The Chickamauga City Council last week raised the price charged for catered events at the Gordon Lee Mansion and its grounds.

Currently, the city receives 5 percent of the amount collected for catered food and drink. That amount will now double.

"The goal of Gordon Lee Mansion is to become self-supporting," City Manager John Culpepper said.

Built between 1840 and 1847 as a home for James and Sarah Gordon, the mansion gained the second half of its name around 1860 when it passed to the Gordons' daughter, Elizabeth, who married James Lee.

In 1903, Gordon Lee, son of James and Elizabeth, became owner and it remained in his family until it was sold to Chattanooga dentist Frank Green in 1974.

Green spent 30 years restoring the house, grounds and outbuildings. In 2007 he sold the property to the city for $1.5 million - less than half its appraised value - so that it would be preserved and benefit Chickamauga.

The city's financial responsibility to maintain the facility and repay money borrowed for its purchase is constant, but revenue produced from tours and event rentals has declined each of the past two years.

"The economy hasn't helped," Culpepper said.

Since its purchase the mansion has had two profitable years and reported two years with losses.

Income of about $263,000 produced a profit of about $20,000 in 2008. The following year, rentals generated about $8,000 more revenue than the $221,000 worth of expenses.

Losses of about $11,000 were reported in 2010. Last year, though business showed an uptick, revenue of about $178,000 was offset by expenditures of about $184,000: an overall loss of about $6,000.

Richard Barclift, manager of the mansion, said that all packages for events held at the mansion are being raised between 6-10 percent this year.

"Basically we're trying to cut expenses while generating more revenue," he said.

In addition to the fees charged to the public for its use, after last week's council decision, the amount paid by the caterer to the city will increase to 10 percent.

"What we're concerned with is the taxpayer dollars [to purchase and maintain the mansion]; negative cash flow is my concern," Councilman Evitte Parrish said.

Exclusive mansion caterer Kathy Phillips said she pays for everything - bartenders, flowers, food, staff and wedding coordinator - other than the actual rental of the grounds. She is concerned that even though those booking events are going straight to the most expensive packages being offered, the city is charging too little for what is provided.

"We should have gone up [on rates] years ago," she said. "People save a lifetime for a wedding."

Culpepper suggested Phillips increase the price charged per plate (catering fees range from about $10 to $18 per person) by 5 percent, with that money going straight to the city's coffers.

The council members and those involved in the mansion's operations agreed that for someone prepared to pay $10,000 for a wedding and catered reception, spending an additional $500, while not insignificant, would not be a deal breaker.

"For special events, people will pay the price," Culpepper said. "Everybody loses if the doors are shut."