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Jim Thorpe forms committee to oversee mansion

Jim Thorpe borough formally accepted the 90-day notice from the Lions Club on Thursday night to transition management of the historic Asa Packer Mansion.

After decades of stewardship, the Lions Club will officially step down as caretakers at the end of June.

In an April letter to the borough, the Lions Club cited “unnecessary obstacles” and a shift in focus toward “political bouts” as reasons for the withdrawal.

“Unfortunately, what once was a project for our local nonprofit group has become a political bout that we are not interested in participating in any longer,” the letter stated. “We joined the Lions Club to make our community a better place, to create strong civic bonds. Over the last year and a half we have faced many unnecessary obstacles while keeping the mansion a place that gives back to this community.”

The three-story, 18-room, 11,000-square-foot mansion was built in 1861 and home to Packer, a prominent philanthropist, politician, and founder of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Lehigh University. His daughter, Mary Packer Cummings, willed the home to Jim Thorpe borough in 1912. In 1954, the borough struck an agreement with the organization now known as the Jim Thorpe Lions Club, who became caretakers of the property and opened it to the public for tours.

Council on Thursday also formed a new management committee, which will consist of two of its members, the borough secretary and treasurer, and a current mansion guide.

“There was a meeting with some of the Lions who have been operating the mansion and we started to get a plan of action in place,” Council President Greg Strubinger said. “This new committee is part of that plan.”

While the committee was formed Thursday, who exactly will be on it remains unsettled.

Mike Yeastedt agreed to be one of council’s representatives. Yeastedt said he hoped Deb Foraker, who is currently handling the scheduling at the mansion, would also serve. Strubinger initially listed Councilman Ted LaRizzio as the second council representative, but LaRizzio declined the invitation.

“I don’t mind lending a hand, but I made it clear from the beginning that I was not in favor of the Lions stepping away,” LaRizzio said. “I don’t think it should have ever come to this and I don’t know that I want my name on this committee.”

Council passed a motion Thursday allowing for the hiring of additional guides. Borough Manager Maureen Sterner said all guides, current or new, will have to come before council at a future meeting as they will be borough employees.

“The mansion will become a division of the borough,” Sterner said. “However, if someone wants to donate to the mansion, they can still use it as a tax deduction.”

Betty Lou McBride, whose family runs the Old Jail Museum in Jim Thorpe, questioned who the contact for the mansion would be come July 1.

“We often work with the mansion on joint tours,” McBride said. “For example, half the tour group will come to the jail and half the group will go to the mansion and then switch.”

Sterner said any questions regarding the mansion should be directed to the borough office until council has more discussion on the matter.

“Anything detrimental that happens at the mansion happens to all of us,” McBride said. “It’s a reflection on all of us.”

Council voted 5-1 in May to allow the Lions Club to remain as sole caretakers and administrators through at least the end of 2023.

The day after that council vote, then Mansion Curator and Executive Director Ava Bretzik and most of the mansion staff submitted their resignations.

In December, the Lions received a two-year extension on its caretaking and administrative duties at the mansion.

“Financially, this is the best year ever reported, with over 15,000 guests visiting the mansion,” Asa Packer Mansion chairman Jay McElmoyle told council at the time.

Following Thursday’s vote, Strubinger thanked the Lions for their years of service at the mansion.

“The Lions serve the community in many ways and one of the main ways has been opening up the mansion to the public, which was the wishes of Mary Packer Cummings after she died,” Strubinger said. “We definitely thank them because to keep that property there is a big undertaking.”

Asa Packer Mansion sits on top of the hill in Jim Thorpe. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO