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Holding out hope at Rogers' Christmas House Village in Brooksville

BROOKSVILLE — An eerie emptiness fills the room where happiness and wonder once dwelled.

The soft holiday music that greeted visitors the moment they walked through the doors has ceased. The silver and gold Christmas trees and antique chandeliers that once gleamed in the warmth of tiny white lights are now dark.

In fact, the entire main building at Rogers' Christmas House Village is dark, save for a laptop computer screen at the front counter powered by a single extension cord strung across the courtyard to one of two buildings where the electricity remains on.

Christmas House operator George Rodriguez shuttered the business two weeks ago after the power was shut off for nonpayment of the electric bill. He doesn't have the money to turn it back on. Nor can he afford to pay for the liability insurance required to allow customers inside the historic five cottages on the east edge of downtown Brooksville.

"It's very sad," Rodriguez said, ignoring the ringing phone on the front counter. "Things just got away from me. If I had the money I would reopen tomorrow. It's still a good business."

Rodriguez, speaking publicly this week for the first time since the Christmas House closed, cited the fallout from his soured partnership with con man Matthew Senge as the chief reason for the Christmas House's financial woes. He says that Senge, who is currently in custody in Baldwin County, Ala., awaiting trial on a felony theft charge, failed to pay several thousands of dollars in bills and interfered in other Christmas House matters without Rodriguez's knowledge.

Though Rodriguez admitted to having financial difficulties before his introduction to Senge last December, the losses from the failed deal created hurdles too large for him to overcome. If he can't find a new business partner by June 1, he said, he will liquidate the store's inventory and sell off any items he owns inside the store. So far, he's had no solid offers.

For Rodriguez, 67, the failure of the Christmas House is much more than a personal tragedy. His 37-year association with the store dates back to the just after founder Margaret "Weenie" Rogers Ghiotto opened the doors of the original edifice. Through the years, he watched as the Christmas House grew from a small roadside business to become one of the county's most renowned tourist attractions.

Rodriguez credits Ghiotto's vision and diligence for the Christmas House's success, which during its heyday of 1970s and 1980s drew nearly a half-million visitors a year. Ghiotto, he said, never eased her efforts to constantly improve the place.

"Just about everything Weenie made she put back into the business," Rodriguez recalled. "Her customers weren't just customers. She saw them as part of her family."

After Ghiotto's death in 2006, Rodriguez hoped to revive that legacy when he bought the Christmas House in a 2008 bankruptcy court settlement for $10,000. The sum included all of the inventory, plus the contents of the five buildings, which he hoped at some point to be able to purchase from Ghiotto's nephew.

Rodriguez admits he may have underestimated the financial burden of keeping the aging business thriving in a faltering economy. The lack of resources to buy advertising and new inventory, and to also make other needed improvements, probably crippled the business' ability to lure new customers.

Senge, who introduced himself to Rodriguez as Matthew Hyde shortly before Christmas, seemed to be just the savior he needed. Rodriguez said the 38-year-old Senge — energetic and youthful — convinced him that he had the financial means to make Rodriguez's vision come true. But nearly a month after they signed their partnership agreement, Rodriguez began realizing that things weren't up to snuff.

He began getting complaints from employees that Senge had a shady side. One employee quit after she refused to give an unsigned business check to a construction contractor. Another said Senge became angry when she told him she had to leave for a doctor's appointment.

"He could be very nice one minute and very nasty the next," Rodriguez recalled. "It was hard dealing with him sometimes."

Following Senge's arrest on an Alabama warrant on Jan. 27, Rodriguez began learning how extensively — and how quickly — Senge had entrenched himself in the business.

According to Rodriguez, Senge put all of the Christmas House electric accounts into his name in January, but never paid any electric bills. Nor did he notify Rodriguez that he had done so. The final bill in Rodriguez's name was deducted from the business's deposit money with Progress Energy. To have power restored, Rodriguez would have to come up with another $6,400 deposit.

In addition, Rodriguez said he gave Senge's former girlfriend, Karen Hyde, four checks in December and January totaling $9,570.30 to cover some bills that she and Senge agreed to pay from their own business account. He said he has seen no evidence that any of those bills were paid.

Despite the Christmas House's gloomy forecast, Rodriguez says he holds onto the hope that someone will come along with the desire and means to save it. Ghiotto's nephew, Weiland Rogers, who owns the buildings and has listed them for sale for $750,000, has said he's not interested in running the business himself.

Rodriguez said he is disappointed there have been no takers so far.

"There have been plenty of people who will pay me lip service, but that's not enough" Rodriguez said.

Last fall, a group led by Brooksville business ambassador Dennis Wilfong and local businesswoman Michael Heard came up with a plan calling for Rodriguez to downsize the Christmas House operation into one building, while subleasing the other four to nonprofit businesses.

Wilfong said Thursday that he's waiting to see how things shake out at the Christmas House.

"We see possibilities there that could be good for the community," Wilfong said. "We'll just have to see how things go."

Though Rodriguez says he's trying to prepare for the eventuality that he won't be at the Christmas House much longer, it's hard to think about it.

"I've spent more than half of my life here," he said. "It's been such a big part of me and my family. It's going to be hard to give it up."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1435.

Holding out hope at Rogers' Christmas House Village in Brooksville 04/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 10:05pm]

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