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Quick departure clouds legal picture

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The vacant restaurant spot in The Commons, created with Detour American Grille & Bar’s abrupt departure Monday night, creates a key business opening downtown, Mayor Kristen Brown said Tuesday.

“It’s a great retail location for any tenant,” Brown said of the 310 Washington St. address with 5,511 square feet in the heart of downtown Columbus.

What will go into that space and when, however, remains in question for the time being.

Greenhouse Restaurant LLC, owned by MSCB Group LLC, operated there from November 2011 until Dec. 30, 2012, as Scotty’s Burger Joint. It reopened Jan. 14 as Detour American Grille & Bar.

At the heart of the dispute between the city and MSCB co-owners Mark Maddox and Meredith “Mert” Shipman is whether the business had to operate as a Scotty’s restaurant.

City Attorney Kelly Benjamin contended in January that the name change was a breach in the lease. Benjamin and Brown told the City Council that the city would have to seek new bids for a replacement restaurant.

The mayor went before The Commons Board in January asking members to assist with the creation of criteria on how to best use the space if the city began seeking proposals from new tenants.

City officials said that if it could be determined that the lease with Greenhouse was indeed breached, it could begin seeking proposals for other restaurants or businesses to operate there.

Brown said at the time that a half-dozen other restaurants had expressed to her their initial interest if the spot became open.

The Columbus Redevelopment Commission voted Jan. 28 to have the city attorney ask a judge to determine if Maddox and Shipman had violated terms of the lease by opening Detour. Court documents seeking such an opinion, however, had not been filed as of Tuesday.

The mayor said the city did not want to pursue legal action, indicating it would do so only as “a last resort.”

Brown said attorneys were further reviewing case law and discussing the matter with the State Board of Accounts.

“We didn’t want to be quick about pressing a button or pulling a trigger,” she said.

Maddox said Tuesday that fighting the battle in court would have cost thousands of dollars, and the chances of winning were not clear-cut.

“In the best-case scenario, our attorneys said it would be a close call if we could prevail in court,” Maddox said.

That’s a change from what Maddox had said earlier.

Maddox told The Republic in late January that he had talked to five attorneys at five different law firms and, at the time, liked his chances in court.

“My group has authorized initially up to $150,000 to engage in litigation should the city choose to sue us,” said Maddox, who is also an attorney, at the time.

He said he expected any legal conflict to be long and costly.

Maddox said he would have liked more support from the city, but the restaurant nevertheless had a core of loyal customers.

Until Maddox and Shipman provide information to the city about their plans — if any — for the vacated restaurant space, Brown said she could not say what will happen next. City representatives were attempting to reach Greenhouse attorneys Tuesday to discuss the closure.

Brown did say that the lease requires Greenhouse Restaurant LLC to continue making payments. The five-year lease, which has a renewal option, calls for annual payments of $82,665 for each of the first five years, after which the price would go up 4 percent.

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