Commercializing Historic Woman’s Club Building Meets Opposition In Fontana

Controversy has broken out in Fontana over what some members of the Fontana Woman’s Club and other community members feel is an illegitimate ploy to commercialize the group’s historic meeting place. The effort is complicated by the consideration that the proponent of the change is a Fontana businessman long active in civic affairs with a reputation for philanthropy whose wife is one of the most active members of the Fontana Woman’s Club.
At the center of the contretemps is the Fontana Woman’s Club Building, located at at 6880 Seville Avenue, proximate to Fontana City Hall. It was built in 1923-24 by Fontana’s founder A.B. Miller and donated to the Fontana Woman’s Club, an offshoot of the national organization that had, just four years before, been instrumental in achieving women’s suffrage.
Over the next nine decades, the building served as a meeting place for the Fontana Woman’s Club, accruing landscaping and decorative embellishments and, in time, being placed on the registry of National Historic Places.
The prime mover in the proposal that is now generating so much controversy is Phil Cothran, a licensed insurance agent who owns Cothran State Farm Insurance, which has been successfully transacting business in Fontana for 34 years. Cothran has striven to demonstrate himself as an entrepreneur with a heart. As a lifelong Fontana resident, he has served on over a dozen community boards and commissions, including the Fontana Planning Commission, the Miss Fontana Organization, the Fontana Historical Society, the Fontana Rotary Club, the Fontana Water of Life Community Church, and the Fontana Motor Speedway Checkered Flag Club. He is a volunteer reserve Fontana police officer and reserve deputy sheriff and has either headed or participated in numerous charity drives.
It is the blurring of the distinction between his role as entrepreneur and philanthropist that burgeoned into a dispute that has grown to envelope the city, City Hall, both elected and non-elected officials, and a core of city residents involved in civic affairs and the preservation of the city’s institutions and history. For many, Cothran’s effort to exploit an historical resource for profit, and the way he is perceived to have cut procedural corners to do so, is tainting his legacy and causing some to question whether his philanthropy is truly altruism or a front for self-promotion.
With his wife, Lena, who happens to be the immediate past president of the Fontana Woman’s Club, Cothran indulged his entrepreneurial inclination, starting another business, known as Amazing View Weddings. The premise of the venture is that it would provide an aesthetically pleasing venue for nuptial ceremonies that would embody a hint of sophistication and historical presence. The Woman’s Club Building, with a bit of sprucing up, the Cothran’s reasoned, could be that venue. At the May Woman’s Club meeting, it was announced that Amazing View Weddings was going to pay the club $10,000 a year for unlimited use of the building and grounds, for weddings and parties. It was further stated that the modernization, renovations, etc. to the building and grounds were set to proceed.
At least three of the woman’s club members in attendance objected, however, with one asserting that such an arrangement could not be entered into without going through the City of Fontana’s planning department, and that there were further restrictions on alterations that could be made to the building, since it is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Lena Cothran claimed that there had been an inquiry with regard to the property’s historic status and she had been informed that it was not any sort of historic site. Two members of the local Fontana Historical Society immediately asserted that the building indeed was registered as a historic site. An inquiry with the city’s planning department carried out subsequently confirmed that the building is in fact listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The listing automatically triggers a requirement that any proposal with regard to alterations to the building would, by law, be subject to an approval process within the planning department prior to any project being initiated to ensure that the integrity of the original building and grounds are not compromised.
Without making any such application with the Fontana planning department or obtaining such permission, on May 24, a tree removal service hired by Phil Cothran cut down two sycamore trees in front of the club, both of which were more than 90 years old. Amy Colbrunn, the executive assistant to Fontana City Manager Ken Hunt, and Fontana Planning Division Manager Zai AbuBakar both told the Sentinel that no tree removal permit for the destruction of the sycamores was obtained prior to their removal. Colbrunn said, “Now that the trees are gone, it is pretty much impossible to inspect them to determine if they had historic or some other type of significance that would have required that they be preserved.”
Cothran’s reputation as an individual active in civic affairs who has engaged in acts of philanthropy notwithstanding, the effort by his wife to use her authority as a member of the woman’s club board to bypass the woman’s club board’s deliberative process in approving the arrangement with Amazing View Weddings is seen by some as an abuse of her position and a conflict of interest. Moreover, her husband’s move to destroy the sycamores without any compliance with the city’s planning process is widely perceived as an act of unforgivable arrogance.
What has now ensued is a clash of wills in which those resisting the use of the Women’s Club for commercial purposes are functioning on dual tracks. The first track consists of seeking to preclude Lena Cothran, who is perceived as having a direct personal financial interest in the arrangement with Amazing View Weddings, from participating in the decision with regard to any arrangement between the club and her and her husband’s company. That effort would extend to vacating any previous action the Woman’s Club has taken with regard to a contract with Amazing View Weddings, and calling for another vote of the board in which she does not participate and does not lobby her board colleagues who do vote. The second track consists of appealing to the City of Fontana’s political leadership to ensure that all land use authority the city possesses is brought to bear and that the alterations contemplated are subjected to a permitting process, including public hearings.
The prospect of success along the first track is questionable.
Lena Cothran’s twin sister, Leta, is the first vice president of the club. Phil Cothran, Jr. is the business manager for the club. Phil and Lena’s daughters, Amanda and Cecily, are on the board of trustees of the club.
At the same time, Phil Cothran is seeking to utilize the considerable goodwill he has generated with city officials as a consequence of his civic activity and his philanthropy to override any objections to his effort to utilize the Woman’s Club building as a venue for the ceremonies to be put on by Amazing View Weddings.
On May 10, Darlene Scalf, a member of the Fontana Historical Society, addressed the Fontana City Council. “We are asking the City of Fontana to stop any further modification of the Fontana Woman’s Club building that could compromise the historical integrity of that building,” Scalf said. “That building is on the National Registry of Historic Places. Electrical work, remodeling, even many painting projects on such a designated landmark must be approved by a process of consulting with the City of Fontana’s municipal code ordinances, as it pertains to the preservation of historic resources, for that building and grounds. At a recent meeting of the Fontana Woman’s Club, it was brought to the attention of the members that upgrades, repairs and remodeling was about to begin without going through the proper channels to ensure that that historic building would not be compromised.”
After noting that the “Woman’s club membership has asked for an emergency meeting to determine the validity and historical legality of the contract that was unauthorized by the general membership per by-laws,” Scalf said, “the Historical Society is asking the city’s help in making sure no remodeling, repairs or modifications are done to the building and property until after determination can be made concerning what, exactly, can be done legally to preserve its historical importance and integrity.”
Cothran acknowledged he was seeking permission to use the woman’s club building as a venue for wedding ceremonies, but said this was by no means a done deal.
“I put an offer on the table,” he said. “I am not sure I care whether they accept it or not. If I can be of help and they ask me, I will do so. There are 100 other things I could be doing out in the community. This is just one of them.”
As to the need to go through a whole rigamarole of permits to make the adaptations to the building envisioned, Cothran said, “We don’t have any intention of doing any renovation. What we want to do is put in heating and air conditioning. I am not sure we’re even going to do that. I’m not sure of where we are in the process. If they want my help with upkeep and maintenance, I will be there for them. If they don’t, then I don’t have to do anything. If they are very content with what they have, then that’s fine.”
Cothran continued, “The woman’s club has been around a long time. There are a number of issues that need to be taken care of with the woman’s club building grounds. There is a problem with the vents over the stove, the wheel stops in the parking lot, a wrought iron fence in the back, some things with the loading dock. There is a concrete block in the middle of the property that is a trip-and-fall hazard. A whole set of things needs to be done to upgrade the building and make it safe. I have paid for a number of things. My family has a history with the woman’s club. My youngest daughter drug my wife into the woman’s club years ago.”
He dismissed the assertion that he was not sensitive to the building’s historic significance.
“I am the past chairman of the historical society so I have a lot of interest in history,” he said.
Cothran disputed that a tree removal permit was needed to take out the two sycamore trees in front of the woman’s club building. “The city told us we didn’t need a tree removal permit,” he said. “We had four different arborist companies look at those trees. All four agreed the trees were dead and needed to come out. The planning department said that if they were dead trees, no permit was needed. The woman’s club’s insurance carrier said they needed to come out. And that wasn’t State Farm. State Farm doesn’t have anything to do with the woman’s club.”
Cothran said there was no effort to cut corners or use his vaunted position in the community to obtain something he was not entitled to.
“I hope I have a good reputation,” he said. “I would never do anything to harm the woman’s club. I don’t need to do anything there. If they want to let me help with some of their problems, I will be glad to do it.”
Cothran said he sensed that the resistance to his proposal emanated from “four women” who are members of the woman’s club who have reservations about his proposal. “I have no beef with those four ladies,” Cothran said. “If they are jealous of my relationship with the city that is unfortunate. I love Fontana. This town has blessed me and my family tremendously.”
Though he said he sincerely did not believe that he had taken inappropriate liberties with respect to the woman’s club and its building, Cothran acknowledged that others may perceive it differently and that there could be grounds for questioning his proposal. He said he respected those who are skeptical about what he is asking for. “I do make mistakes,” he said. “If I have stepped over the line, then someone should slap me back. It’s okay if they do.”

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