Songbook Foundation considering what to do with donation of $30M Simon Estate

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Great American Songbook Foundation officials announced Jan. 4 that the nonprofit will  accept the donation of the $30 million Asherwood Estate, a gift too generous to pass up, they said.

But it’s unclear what the donation will mean for the foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with the Center for the Performing Arts that focuses on celebrating legendary songwriters.

Some have speculated it costs millions of dollars a year to operate the property, which features two golf courses, a pool, a fully furnished 50,000-square-foot main house, an 8,000-square-foot clubhouse and a 6,000-square-foot guesthouse. The gift could actually pose a financial risk, some say.

Foundation officials expect to take three years to study the 107-acre site donated by Bren Simon, widow of shopping mall magnate and Indiana Pacers co-owner Mel Simon, and weigh their options.

“It’s an opportunity to do something special with national significance,” Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said. “The foundation board is absolutely the doing the right thing by taking sufficient time to study all of the options.”

The estate is along the west side of Ditch Road between West 96th and 106th streets. Bren Simon previously had a deal to sell the property to developer Paul Estridge, who wanted to build approximately 100 homes with prices from $800,000 to $2 million. He would have eliminated the golf course but kept the mansion and guest house as a hotel and community center. The deal fell through because there were covenants attached to the land put in place by former owner Ruth Lilly in 1959 that restricted lot sizes. Home lots had to be at least an acre.

Estridge needed 100 percent of the 88 adjacent landowners to support the new density, and he had 78 sign off on the project.

If Bren Simon were unable to sell the land, then donating it made sense to save on taxes.

And it’s not the first time the Simons have tried to donate the land. In 2008, Bren and Mel Simon worked with the Indiana University Foundation to donate it, but the deal fell through.

McDermott said the Songbook Foundation’s board preliminarily analyzed the operating costs, which includes a nine-person staff, utilities and insurance. He said further analysis will continue, and there are no conditions on the donation.

The foundation could decide to use the main house as a museum and center of operations, subject to a rezone. The golf course land could be sold in a plan similar to Estridge’s but with lot sizes that meet the covenants. That money could be used to support operation of the museum.

The entire property, including the main house, could be sold to a developer. That money could be used to support the foundation or build the Great American Songbook Museum closer to The Palladium, possibly next to the soon-to-be-built luxury hotel, The Carmichael.

“Nothing is off the table,” McDermott said.

Brainard said a museum is the ultimate goal and could work either in that neighborhood or by The Palladium. He said there are pros and cons to both, noting it would be nice to have it in the walkable urban downtown but he also could envision museum visitors park elsewhere and take a shuttle to the museum off of Ditch Roach, similar to shuttles in Graceland and Disney World.

“It’s a very generous gift,” Brainard said. “It’s an asset that could be used by the Foundation to leverage for future donations. It’s very important to include neighbors in any conversation about any use and then proceed in such a way that enhance’s property values in the area.”

McDermott said an important thing to note is that the donation could jumpstart the Foundation in a significant way. He said charity events could be held on the golf course and added that a donation this size is a signal to other potential donors who were thinking of writing a check.

“This is a gift that creates additional gift opportunities,” he said.

Although some have jumped to the conclusion that the Simon Estate will become a museum, McDermott said it’s only one possibility.

“We don’t know right now,” he said. “It’s too early to know all of the decisions just yet.”

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