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Bankruptcy in Elkins Park has many brides scrambling

Kelley Graff and John McConnell found the perfect venue for their wedding behind a wrought-iron gate on Ashbourne Road in Elkins Park.

Kelley Graff was to marry at Elkins Estate in June. "The uncertainty is enough to make you crazy," she says. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)
Kelley Graff was to marry at Elkins Estate in June. "The uncertainty is enough to make you crazy," she says. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)Read more

Kelley Graff and John McConnell found the perfect venue for their wedding behind a wrought-iron gate on Ashbourne Road in Elkins Park.

With 43 acres of rolling grounds and a columned Italian Renaissance palace, the Elkins Estate offered the ceremony close to the city that he wanted, with just enough bucolic romanticism to satisfy her.

But the location, just off Route 611, came with another feature on which neither the bride nor the groom had counted: a mountain of debt that has threatened to derail their planned June nuptials and those of more than 50 other couples.

The Land Conservancy of Elkins Park - the nonprofit that owns the former estate of oil and streetcar tycoon William Lukens Elkins - filed for bankruptcy in November, warning all that they might have to call off their wedding plans.

"The uncertainty is enough to make you crazy," said Graff, of Churchville, who is mired in a last-minute effort to reshuffle plans for her ceremony and recover the $7,000 she put down in January 2010 as a deposit. "People ask us whether we're excited for our wedding, but I honestly haven't had time to think about it."

In the five months since the Land Conservancy filed for Chapter 11, many couples have hustled to find new venues; reissue invitations; and rebook caterers, photographers, and bands.

Although conservancy president David Dobson said Friday that the nonprofit had reached a restructuring agreement with its creditors that awaits court approval, many affected families have not been willing to wait.

It has become increasingly clear, they say, that Land Conservancy representatives took couples' money to reserve dates well into the future even as they knew their financial situation was rapidly deteriorating.

"I feel like I got taken for a ride," said David Goodwin, whose daughter put down $6,400 to reserve the space for her October ceremony. "My daughter's only going to get married once. And here, I got swindled."

Dobson, 57, who also runs one of Philadelphia's largest low-income-housing charities, has vowed that all brides who have decided to cancel their reservations at Elkins would eventually receive a refund.

"We hope to emerge from bankruptcy soon," he said.

Dobson engineered the 2009 deal that allowed the Land Conservancy to purchase the Elkins Estate from an order of Dominican sisters who had held it for 75 years.

Under the terms of their agreement, he created the Land Conservancy, used $1.5 million in funds from his housing charity - Food for All - to make a down payment, and promised to follow it with an additional $6.9 million in principal and interest payments to the sisters.

The only problem, the sisters say in court filings, was that Dobson didn't have the money.

All subsequent payments came from Food for All instead of the Land Conservancy, and in February 2010, the nonprofits missed their first $250,000 principal payment. By May, they had stopped paying any money at all, said Anne Lythgoe, president of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de' Ricci.

Lythgoe's organization reclaimed the deed to the property in November, saying Dobson's nonprofit had defaulted on its payments.

Dobson maintains that his organization has always been solvent, and filed for bankruptcy only to protect its claim to the land while an agreement was worked out with the sisters on how much they were owed.

The brides remain stuck in the middle.

"My heart goes out to them," said Lythgoe. "But as much as we would like to help, we have no legal authority to honor contracts made with the Land Conservancy."

It's not the ongoing financial dispute that bothers Amanda Paden of Collingswood. It's that she - or any of the other brides - had no idea, when they put down thousands to reserve their wedding dates, that such behind-the-scenes financial wrangling might affect their plans.

Estate staff booked her ceremony for September and offered her a discount if she agreed to pay the full price up front, even though the Land Conservancy was months behind in payments at the time. (Paden put down $3,200 for a deposit - not the full price.)

Several brides recounted a similar sales pitch, though the estate at that time owed more than $500,000 in mortgage payments and back taxes and was only months from filing for Chapter 11.

Meanwhile, even as the nonprofit was struggling with debt, Dobson was negotiating another multimillion-dollar land purchase.

In May, the Land Conservancy entered into negotiations to buy a 12-acre tract neighboring its property from Temple University's Tyler School of Art.

That deal ultimately fell through because one of Dobson's backers dropped out, but news that the Land Conservancy sought to take on more debt even as it owed hundreds of thousands struck Paden and her family silent.

"Her heart was set on Elkins," said her mother, Sharon Patton. "My daughter's to the point now where she's so frustrated, she says she'd rather not have a wedding at all."

Dobson said Friday that his organization had tried to be as up-front as possible in letters sent to the brides since the bankruptcy filing.

While there was always a risk the court could side with the sisters' claim to Elkins, he said, he has felt confident that this latest deal would keep the estate in the Land Conservancy's hands.

As for the brides, he encourages them to wait. Weddings continue at the Elkins Estate, even amid the bankruptcy proceedings.

But waiting is not a gamble that Graff, the Churchville bride, is willing to take.

Since last year, she and her fiancé moved their wedding date, booked a new venue at Philadelphia's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and re-reserved most of their vendors.

They are out the $5,000 they paid the Land Conservancy and an additional $2,000 they paid a caterer selected from Elkins Estate's approved list. They are seeking to recover some of that sum in court, but aren't holding their breath for Dobson's promised refund.

They altered their honeymoon plans to make up for the money they lost.

"It's a lot of money," Graff said. "But you'd have to be crazy to hold out hope and let it creep closer to your wedding date. I feel like we were deceived."