Employees, family members and management from a yet-to-open Detour American Grille and Bar packed a Columbus City Hall meeting room Thursday night, begging, pleading and occasionally shouting for the Columbus Redevelopment Commission to save their jobs.
But city officials argued that the lease for the restaurant space in The Commons was breached, and that to be faithful to state law they had to open the process up for public bids.
The commission voted 4-0 to declare the breach and notify the leaseholder, Greenhouse Restaurant LLC, that it had 15 days to meet the lease requirement of operating a Scotty’s restaurant in the city-owned property.
Voting in favor of the motion were Mayor Kristen Brown, who chairs the commission, and members Frank Jerome, Dave Wright and Sarah Cannon. A fifth member, Steven Scgalski, was not at the meeting.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 50 people spilled into the hallway of City Hall, waiting for the chance to address the commission.
The restaurant workers, dressed mostly in black T-shirts with Detour American Grille and Bar logos, argued that the city was taking an action that would deny them employment.
Many gave tearful testimonials in support of the company that hired them, trained them and plans to have them working in the restaurant scheduled to open Monday.
Members of the crowd applauded loudly as their co-workers made points they agreed with.
As audience members began talking over each other as well as members of the commission, City Attorney Kelly Benjamin addressed the crowd and explained that the public meeting would not descend into a shouting mob and that only one person could speak at a time.
Several employees talked about how the company employed them when they couldn’t find a job elsewhere, and that they found a sense of family working at the former Scotty’s. They said they would face eviction from their homes and have their utilities turned off if the restaurant couldn’t open Monday as the management intends.
Brian Roche, a bartender at the former Scotty’s, told the mayor that he had served her several times at the restaurant and that Scotty’s had shown her the sort of family atmosphere the restaurant fostered.
Brown repeatedly told the crowd that the city was not responsible for their possible unemployment, and that the Greenhouse management decision to end the Scotty’s relationship was the company’s responsibility. Roche countered that the city was fully responsible.
“You are the ones saying that our employers can’t open up a building,” Roche said. “If you tell them they can’t open a building to employ these 70 people, you are terminating our employment and costing us our homes and our jobs.”
Columbus resident Stacy Wart told the commission that she was not an employee but a loyal customer. She said that her family ate at Scotty’s several times a month because they loved the employees and the atmosphere.
“They have taken really good care of us,” Wart said. “They are the people that are serving the customers of Columbus ... If Detour does open up on Monday, we are going to be one of the first people in line there.”
Her husband, John Wart, told the commission that as a resident he feared that the city would appear unfriendly to business and develop a reputation that Columbus was difficult to deal with.
Mark Maddox, co-owner of MSCB Group LLC, which owns Greenhouse Restaurant, compared the company’s experience in Columbus to a similar situation in the Geist area of Fishers, which also was affected when the Scotty’s management contract was terminated. There, the city welcomed them with open arms and the chamber of commerce set up a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopened Detour.
City Council member Frank Miller, who was in the audience, said that situation was different because it was a private landlord as opposed to a city entity.
Before the meeting started, MSCB Group officials notified the city that it intended to revoke the transfer of its lease — signed and submitted Dec. 17 — from Columbus Downtown Inc. to the Redevelopment Commission, said Kerry Mann, an MSCB Group attorney who attended the meeting. The restaurant was the last of the tenants that negotiated leases through the not-for-profit corporation to agree to transfer its lease to the city entity. Under CDI, the city had the option to negotiate more directly with future tenants and under less strenuous public access and bidding requirements, Mann said.
Brown said that under her administration, CDI was operating as a public entity and its decisions would be made through a public process and ratified by the Redevelopment Commission. However, Brown and Benjamin said the lease transfer already had been signed and approved, indicating the action could not be reversed.
The meeting started contentiously, as the Redevelopment Commission’s first action item was a resolution to sign a master lease between the commission and The Commons Board to manage the subleases at The Commons. Maddox and Mann contended that the city gave improper public notice to add that item to the agenda, while Benjamin argued that it was a late addition properly posted in the meeting room. The commission voted 4-0 to approve that resolution. The reason for the change was not made clear during the meeting.
After almost an hour of public comments, the commission voted 4-0 to notify Greenhouse that it was in default and voted 4-0 to give city legal counsel the authority to handle any upcoming legal issues in the dispute.
Officials from MSCB Group LLC, the owners of the Greenhouse Restaurant leaseholder, promised that they would reopen the restaurant on Monday as planned. After the meeting concluded, Maddox addressed his employees.
“We open Monday, we open Monday,” Maddox shouted, later confirming that the restaurant would not reopen as a Scotty’s as the city contends its lease requires.
Brown said in an interview following the meeting that she was disappointed that the restaurant operators used “emotional blackmail” to make their case.