Syrup Sopping founder, organizer speaks out on controversy brewing in Loachapoka

Syrup Sopping founder, organizer speaks out on controversy brewing in Loachapoka

LOACHAPOKA, AL (WTVM) - We have new details on the Syrup Sopping controversy brewing in Loachapoka. News Leader 9 was the first to confirm the Syrup Sopping fall festival will not take place this year.

Syrup Sopping is a 40-year tradition, drawing more than 20,000 people to the small town. 

Mayor James Grout says organizers pulled the event, without any explanation and he is sad to see it go.

Syrup Sopping president Gene Smith says he has no further comment on the issue and referred us to his attorney. However, Mathen Holt, a founder of the event, asked for a sit-down interview to share his side.
Former County Commissioner, Mathen Holt helped start Syrup Sopping more than 40 years ago. He has served as an organizer, officer or volunteer ever since.

"There is nobody in this country that has given more time and money to syrup sopping than me. This is a tradition here in Loachapoka of 40 years. I hate to see it die, I've tried to keep it alive," said Mathen Holt. "There are people in the town council, I am not naming names, that are anti Syrup Sopping."        

Holt says organizers canceled this year's event because town leaders threatened to pull their venue.

"I am not going to do all the work and all the planning that has to be done for Syrup Sopping and at the last minute the town leaders of Loachapoka tell us we can't have Syrup Sopping cause we have the lease and you don't have it," Holt explained.
Mayor James Grout says he has no idea why organizers pulled the event. He says he has reached out to the group, but they have not returned his phone calls.

Holt says no one from Loachapoka has contacted him to ask what's going on with Syrup Sopping. 

Holt is also offended the organizations financials have been questioned. He admits he does not know if the organization is a non-profit or for-profit, saying sometimes they are and sometimes they aren't.

"Do we have an accounting method that completes with basic accounting practices of today? Absolutely not. But we don't have time for that. We all have regular jobs," Holt said.

Lee County Commissioner Shelia Ekmen released this statement:

"While the Syrup Sop is rumored to have donated to the Volunteer Fire Department and the Loachapoka Library, requests for financials have never been forthcoming.  They have paid for the town park to be mowed and they have paid the water bill at Town Hall.  If they are for-profit, they don't have to provide records to anyone.  If they are non-profit, they do. They do not claim non-profit status on their website, but they promote their event as 'benefiting the community.' The community gets only about $300 for a business license and the rental of the old school.  Townsfolk have been upset about the deception for years, as they don't see any benefit.  Most people don't realize there are actually two events that day--the Syrup Sop on the south side if Highway 14 and the Lee County Historical Fair on the north.  With the exodus of the Syrup Sop, the fair will be much more easily accessed and family friendly, I believe."

Southwest Volunteer Fire Department confirms Syrup Sopping has donated $18,000 since 2010.  A board member calls the donations invaluable and hopes an agreement can be reached to bring Syrup Sopping back.
"If you come and ask me what do you do with the money, I will tell them. If you say prove it to me, I ain't got to prove you nothing!  If you want to get involved with the organization, you can see for yourself how we do it," said Holt.
Holt says he spends $10,000 or more of his own money on the event, along with his time every year. Holt says organizers did the event for the community, not for personal gain.

The Secretary Of State's office says the group has been listed as a non-profit under the name "Syrup Sopping, A Fundraising Event for Loachapoka" since 1998. News Leader 9 has requested financials from the office. Holt says next week he will provide records showing their list of donations.
On Wednesday, Holt and Syrup Sopping president Gene Smith, told us they were thinking about moving the event closer to Auburn next year.

Holt says his comments over the phone were misunderstood and as far as he is concerned he has not made a decision about where next year's festival will be held, if it is held. Holt does own an RV park in Auburn, but says that venue has not been decided on.

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