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A merchants association of just one?

In its heyday in the mid 1990s, the Inverness Olde Town Association had seven events a year and about 40 member businesses from both inside and outside Courthouse Square. All were committed to the same cause, said a former president of the group: the improvement and survival of downtown Inverness.

What started as a group of about 10 that got together at Cockadoodles Cafe to discuss the city's parking situation grew into an active organization that started the city's Patriotic Evening.

The group sponsored events that drew thousands to downtown Inverness and, in 1997, earned the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce award for outstanding community organization.

By 1998, however, group members were burned out, with only a few volunteers doing all the work. The group disbanded.

Enter Winston Perry of Ritzy Rags & Glitzy Jewels Etc., a Courthouse Square shop that opened about the time the old group broke up. Perry took the reins, and the group was renamed: the New Inverness Olde Town Association.

But today, events that bring thousands to downtown Inverness are mostly a thing of the past. Sure, officially, the group exists, but some question whether it has members. Is there really an association?

Perry, the president, says yes: "It's a viable group, we have money in the bank, we're a registered . . . organization," he said. The group just needs more active members, Perry said. People who will contribute time and effort.

But others say no, there is no group, only Perry.

Without the title, Perry "is nothing," "a man without his island," said Fred Sell of Sandy Bottom Bayou. The title gives Perry credibility, he said _ a way to open doors.

Perry said basically every retail merchant downtown is part of the group, but could not estimate the number of members. A handful of downtown merchants told a Times reporter that they are not members. Perry also said the group's officers include his wife, Andrea, but was not sure which position she holds. He also named Sandra Dixon, a downtown property owner, as an officer, but Dixon said she is not an active member of the group.

"I thought they had dissolved. I'm really not that sure why my name is still on there," Dixon said of a state department Web site that lists her as one of the group's officers. She added she sees no harm in her name being listed.

Perry explained that the group has not met on a regular basis for the past six months.

For Sell, the big problem is that when Perry introduces himself as president of the group, he implies that he represents the business interests of all the merchants. And Sell said that's not true.

Said Rick Lewis of Vanishing Breeds: "It sounds like he speaks for all of us. His philosophy is nowhere near the majority. He's just the loudest voice."

One reason some merchants say they don't belong to the group is because it has become too political.

"There's so much stuff on the periphery," Lewis said, "it's exasperating."

It's no secret that Perry and the city of Inverness don't get along. Perry criticizes the city for what he believes are extravagant plans for a new City Hall. He collected money for Inverness police officers, but city officials say it is against city and department policies for the officers to accept.

Recently, he was disappointed when he approached the city about closing a downtown cul-de-sac for a "Holiday Fair" craft show, which Perry said included more than 50 crafters and artisans. "But the city said no," Perry said Saturday, "and it's a sad commentary on city government."

"The ill between Winston and the city is immeasurable," said Sell, who believes Perry also has alienated himself from the county and other businesses on Courthouse Square. The merchants don't need a group that takes on the city, Sell said _ they need one that will work harmoniously.

One result of the bad blood is negativity in the newspaper, Lewis said. People are reading the negativity instead of coming to enjoy the newly renovated downtown. "I wish he didn't have so much to say all the time," Lewis said.

Perry and the city is like Palestine and Israel, Lewis said. "And who suffers? The people."

"It's just unfortunate."

Events that drew thousands gave businesses opportunities to showcase what they have to first-timers to Inverness, he said. No events like that mean missed opportunities.

The city's parks and recreation director, Pati Smith, agrees that the bad blood between Perry and the city makes residents and other merchants suffer. "We will do what's right for the city of Inverness in spite of Mr. Perry," she said. "But it's hard because the merchants down there want to be a good neighbor.

"It's Winston's way or no way, and you can't work like that," she said.

Last month, in a letter to the city manager, Perry wrote that he became suspicious of Smith when he found her in the back of his shop. He threatened police or legal action if anything similar happened again.

At the last City Council meeting, Perry apologized to Smith.

Smith said even with the old merchants group, there were disagreements. "But we were able to discuss them."

". . . And that is just not happening now, and it hasn't happened in a number of years."

Smith, who serves as a liaison between the merchants and the city, still works with the merchants on various events. So, does it matter what Perry and his organization do?

"Oh, it matters because he's still there under what he thinks is the umbrella of downtown merchants," Smith said., " "I'm the president,' but president of what?"

The way Perry sees it, he merely is questioning how Inverness officials are spending tax dollars and the decisions they make.

And, he said, "If people feel that I'm the problem, then why don't they come to a meeting and they can take over the presidency. I'll gladly turn over the reins to anyone who wants to step up to the plate."

He added: "I'll second the motion."

A year ago, Sell went to a meeting to recommend that Perry resign. He said he found so few people at the meeting that "there is no "they' to vote him out."

"That was a long, long, long time ago," Perry said of Sell's appearance.

Sell said he could become the group's president, but was not convinced that the merchants need the same kind of organization. Perry should resign and let the group restructure itself, he said.

"We need to take action to have him unseated."

_ Suzannah Gonzales can be reached at 860-7312 or sgonzalessptimes.com.

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