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Inverness merchant group's leader quits

The president of the New Inverness Olde Town Association resigned his post Monday, leaving downtown shopkeepers scratching their heads over whether he was president of anything.

In a letter delivered to store owners Monday morning, association president Winston Perry said he was resigning and turning over all association business to Fred Sell, owner of Sandy Bottom Bayou. In the tiny business district that surrounds Courthouse Square in downtown Inverness, Sell's business is located across the street from Perry's Ritzy Rags & Glitzy Jewels Etc.

Perry said he was resigning after reading remarks Sell had made in an article in Monday's Citrus Times. Perry's letter was written to the editor of the Times, but the Times has not yet received a copy from Perry.

"As stated in your newspaper, a Mr. Fred Sell has agreed to run the organization, therefore, as soon as possible, I will be turning over all of the association's records to him for his use," Perry wrote in his letter.

The story in Monday's Times stated that Sell "could become the group's president, but was not convinced that the merchants need the same kind of organization." In the story, which included Sell and others criticizing Perry and suggesting that he was leading an association without any members, Sell went on to say that Perry should resign and let the group restructure itself.

Sell said Monday that he did not intend to volunteer for the job and that Perry cannot simply disavow himself and then hand over the reins. The association's bylaws need to be dusted off and applied to this situation, Sell said.

Perry did not return phone calls Monday. His wife, Andrea, said the other merchants can take the association and "restructure it all they want."

Pati Smith, the city's parks and recreation director and liaison with the merchants association, said she is trying to contact Scott Lee of Edward Jones, another downtown business. Lee, who said last week that he is not very involved in the association, is listed on state corporate records as the group's vice president.

Smith said the merchants must decide for themselves whether to continue with the association. Relations between Perry and the city, as well as between Perry and the merchants, have been so strained, however, that Smith is already working directly with the shop owners instead of with the association.

"Truthfully, we've been operating without one (an association). Even though Winston was president of one, there hasn't been any interaction with the city and the so-called association," Smith said. "We have been interacting directly with the downtown merchants, so to me, I don't really see why they would even need (an association)."

Sell said the merchants have a number of options to consider. Beyond reorganizing the association or deciding to fold it, they could also choose to work more closely with the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce to promote the business district.

Regardless, getting Perry to relinquish control of the group was key, Sell said. "We all wanted to see Mr. Perry step aside. "That step has been accomplished."

Judy Van Dermark, owner of Towne & Country All Wood Furniture, who was involved with the association in the days before Perry took over in the late 1990s, said merchants have to decide whether they're prepared for the work involved in running an active organization.

"I think it's too early to tell, and I think it's going to take time for people to figure out if they want to do the work," she said. "As far as whether we need one or not, I don't know."