It wasn’t that long ago that downtown Greensboro was deserted after 5 p.m. The only people downtown were folks working late in their offices. People didn’t come downtown to eat, drink and be merry.
One reason for this, which people seem to have forgotten, was that the City Council didn’t want bars or restaurants that sold alcohol in the downtown.
The City Council designated what amounted to a strip of grass in the parking lot on South Elm near McGee Street and a planter on the corner of South Elm and Washington as official city parks because there were restrictions about how close an establishment with a license to sell alcohol could be to a city park. These two “parks” made bars and restaurants that sold alcohol off limits for most of the downtown.
It has long been forgotten but the N Club at 117 S. Elm St. had to get a special exemption from this law to open, and it was a close vote. The N Club was the first big club to really start bringing people downtown, and today the downtown is at times more crowded at night than during the day.
Even before Joey Medaloni opened the N Club, John Rudy took a vacant restaurant space in the Cultural Center building on North Davie Street – which up until that point had turned over about once a year, and created Café Europa. His idea was to have a French bistro downtown, and it didn’t go over that well in the beginning. It took a while for the people who like that type of dining in a relaxed atmosphere to catch on in Greensboro, but it did, and 18 years later Café Europa is still going strong.
Now it appears the City Council has decided that it wants to take downtown Greensboro back where it was 20 years ago, and unfortunately for Greensboro the City Council has the power to do it.
First the city went after Cone Denim Entertainment Center, which is what the N Club became after it changed ownership. The current owner, Rocky Scarfone, says that to stay in business he has to have access to the back of his building. He currently has access through a permanent deeded easement. The City Council took action in December to condemn that easement in order to build a parking deck and a Westin Hotel. Scarfone says not having access to the back door will put Cone Denim out of business.
Scarfone has sued the city and the city has agreed to delay the condemnation action until after the judge makes a decision on whether to grant Scarfone a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from taking the easement until the lawsuit is settled. The judge is supposed to announce his decision on the temporary restraining order on Feb. 16.
Then there is the bizarre case of Café Europa. The lease for Café Europa, which has been regularly renewed by the city for 18 years, was set to expire on Jan. 31; but the city asked for a three-month extension to get its plans in place to completely change the relationship between the city and Café Europa. The city staff, without the knowledge of the City Council, decided not to renew or renegotiate the lease, but to give the lease to Greensboro Downtown Parks Inc. (GDPI), an independent nonprofit established to operate Center City Park and LeBauer Park.
The current owner of Café Europa, Jakub Pucilowski, was not consulted on this decision and was not given an opportunity to renegotiate his lease. And he was not informed of this decision in June as the city has repeatedly claimed.
In June, Pucilowski was informed that the lease was expiring and the city was looking at a number of options, including the possibility of putting the lease out for an RFP. What Pucilowski was not informed about was that the city was going to hand the control of his restaurant over to GDPI, and GDPI would not be asking for an RFP on the lease, but asking for an RFP on becoming an independent contractor for GDPI.
The RFP states that the owner of Café Europa will be an independent contractor for GDPI and that GDPI will have the authority to decide what hours the restaurant is open and what days it is open, and the owner will be required to pay, in addition to the lease, a percentage of gross revenue from the restaurant.
The lease payments and the skim off the top will be paid to GDPI, not the City of Greensboro, even though Greensboro continues to own the building and all the other tenants in the building have leases with the City of Greensboro.
It certainly appears that the goal of the city is to put Café Europa out of business. If that is not the goal then the City Council is as devoid of business sense as its detractors claim.
Every member of the City Council in the past election said that they were in favor of supporting small businesses, particularly in downtown Greensboro. But now, after being elected for four years and with two months under their belts, the City Council is attempting to put two pioneering downtown businesses out of business.
In the case of Cone Denim Entertainment Center, the city could have easily made accommodations to grant access to the back of the building either through the parking deck or by allowing for more than a 10-foot easement between the parking deck and the back of the buildings that face South Elm. The city might have had to give up some parking spaces in the proposed deck, but the adjustment could have been done without much expense before the parking deck was designed.
However, the city didn’t even contact Scarfone about the plan to condemn his easement until July, and the design for the parking deck began in April. According to City Councilmember Mike Barber, who participated in the negotiations between Scarfone and the city, one big sticking point was the city said the parking deck had been designed and the design could not be changed.
It appears that if the city’s goal was not to put Cone Denim out of business, at the very least the City Council has no problem with destroying one downtown business in order to accommodate a new business, a Westin Hotel that may or may not be successful. The City Council is clearly choosing the new over the old.
In the case of Café Europa, it appears the rational is not so clear cut. It may be that city staff believed that Café Europa was taking away business from the two food kiosks in LeBauer Park, one of which has already gone out of business.
But there is another issue that the City Council didn’t consider. Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson said it was his decision to hand the management of Café Europa over to GDPI, and when that decision was made, Cecelia Thompson was the chairman of the board of GDPI. Wilson and Thompson are romantically involved. Facebook pages are full of photos of the two together. Did that have anything to do with the decision? It may have.
It would have been far better if the City Council had been given the opportunity to weigh in on the decision before it was made. At the very least City Manager Jim Westmoreland, not Wilson, should have made the decision.
It seems when the city is dealing with the livelihood of a number of people, there should be no doubt that the decision was made in the best interest of the city without potential personal conflicts.
The RFP for the Café Europa space repeatedly states that decisions will be made in the best interest of GDPI, not in the best interest of the City of Greensboro, but in the best interest of an independent nonprofit that answers to no one.
If GDPI decides that Café Europa has to be open on a holiday when it would normally be closed, and it loses money that day, who absorbs the loss? Not GDPI, which will get its percentage of gross revenue whether that revenue covers the cost of operating the restaurant or not. It’s a little hard to imagine a restaurant run by a committee, which is what the city has ordained as being successful.
If this was the city’s plan all along, why did the city have to ask for a lease extension of three months in order to issue an RFP? And furthermore, why wasn’t Pucilowski told that his restaurant would no longer be under the control of the city in June when he met with Parks and Recreation Director Wade Walcott.
The question that the City Council as a policy making board should have been asking at its meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 6, was, why didn’t Wilson, who made the decision, ever sit down with Pucilowski and discuss it? Wilson has never run a restaurant, and changing the relationship that Pucilowski has from leasing space from the city to being an independent contractor for GDPI clearly has implications that one would hope Wilson didn’t consider.
It would have been even better if Wilson had set up a meeting between Pucilowski, Wilson and Thompson to discuss how and why the city was recommending this change. If this had been discussed, it likely could have been worked out in a manner that would have avoided all of this controversy.
But the city treated Café Europa the same way it treated Cone Denim, as if small businesses downtown don’t matter. Both business owners were notified after the fact. The city in both cases had the power and authority to do what it did, but that doesn’t make it right or in the best interest of the city.
The city councilmembers talked a lot about transparency and openness during the November election. But in reality what the city is doing is making decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of its citizens, and then when the citizens complain, the City Council says, you’re too late that decision was already made and we are not willing to take another look at it.
They may all be liberals, but this is the most authoritarian government Greensboro has had in at least 30 years. It’s back to the days when decisions were all made in smoke filled back rooms and the results announced to the public after the fact. The difference today is that there is no smoke.