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Snappy exit: Settlement offer includes closing Commons store


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The owner of Snappy Tomato Pizza has offered to vacate The Commons if the city accepts a settlement offer Friday.

Larken & Co. LLC has offered to pay the city about $18,100 to settle its debt in exchange for release of all liability in the rental agreement, then close and move out by Jan. 31.

The Columbus Redevelopment Commission informed the restaurant in a Dec. 23 letter that it was in default and owed $27,237.52 in past-due rent, additional rent, utilities and late fees.

Snappy Tomato Pizza did not make a single $1,800 monthly rent payment in 2013, a fact that first came to the attention of city leaders in mid-December.

The Redevelopment Commission will conduct a special public meeting at 2 p.m. Friday to consider terminating the restaurant’s lease and either accepting the settlement offer or initiating litigation to secure a higher amount.

The pizza restaurant, owned by Tim Larken, signed a lease with the city Oct. 24, 2011, to operate an eatery overlooking the popular Luckey Climber indoor playground at The Commons.

Debt to the city

The city Redevelopment Commission notified Snappy Tomato Pizza owner Tim Larken on Dec. 23 that his company was in default after making no rent payments in 2013. Here’s a breakdown of that debt through that date:

$18,000

For: Unpaid rent, of which $1,500 was due the first of each month through 2013; Snappy Tomato also has not made any payments in January of this year

$1,800

For: Late fees, which represents 10 percent of the rent

$1,986.52

For: Unpaid utilities

$5,451

For: Additional rent, required in the sublease, of which $2,061 was for the first year and $3,390 for the second year

$27,237.52

For: Total amount owed

On the table

$18,100

What Snappy Tomato Pizza has offered by Friday to settle the debt

What’s next

The Columbus Redevelopment Commission has scheduled a special meeting for 2 p.m. Friday in the City Hall Chambers, which is open to the public. The agenda contains two items:

Consider terminating the lease with Larken & Co., doing business in The Commons as Snappy Tomato Pizza, due to nonpayment of rent and other lease obligations.

Consider litigation or settlement of outstanding rental obligations and other terms of the lease.

Voting members of the Redevelopment Commission are Mayor Kristen Brown, who serves as president of the body, as well as Sarah Cannon, Dave Wright, Steven Scgalski and councilman Frank Jerome. Robert Abrams is a non-voting member of the panel.

City officials have said that the restaurant paid its obligations to the city through 2012.

On Dec. 13, however, then-Parks and Recreation Director Ben Wagner, whose department was collecting rent payments from Commons tenants, said he was notified by redevelopment commission officials that the restaurant had made no rent payments over the entire year.

When it became apparent the restaurant might not pay its back rent, Wagner said he informed Mayor Kristen Brown and others Dec. 19 of the situation.

Wagner was demoted by Brown on Dec. 30.

Collection efforts

Redevelopment attorney Stan Gamso notified the restaurant Dec. 23 that it was in default and gave Larken 15 days to comply with all terms of the lease.

Columbus attorney Jeffrey Rocker, representing Larken & Co., sent Gamso a fax at 6:07 p.m. Jan. 7, Gamso’s deadline for receiving payment, outlining a proposed settlement of $16,601.27 — 61 percent of the amount owed.

“It is our hope that this proposal would allow the Columbus Redevelopment Commission to move forward with attempts to fill the space at its earliest opportunity,” Rocker wrote in his letter to Gamso.

“We thought it wasn’t adequate,” said City Council member Frank Jerome, a member of the six-person redevelopment commission.

Jerome said Gamso went back to Rocker and was able to get the second settlement proposal of about $18,100, the equivalent of adding a $1,500 rent payment for January.

Gamso gave commission members that information during a closed meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, reflecting “a little movement” in negotiations, as Jerome described it.

Jerome, who said last week he was not interested in accepting a payment agreement from Larken, indicated Wednesday he had changed his mind.

After several private discussions by the commission regarding a settlement, Jerome said he would “reluctantly agree to the $18,100, but the public gets to weigh in (Friday). We’ll listen to them.”

Jerome, however, said it was time for the city to move on.

“If you go to court, you tied up the space for a year. Sometimes you just have to do what’s expeditious,” he said.

“We’re not going to get any better deal in a year or two years or three years,” Jerome said. “We’re just going to have to bite the bullet.”

Jerome said he would prefer finding a new Commons tenant with some business acumen who is willing to follow through with commitments.

“You just get tired of people that damage the city by not standing up for what they said they were going to do,” Jerome said. “He (Larken) hasn’t manned up to anyone.”

Secret documents

Negotiations initially were kept confidential by Gamso, who claimed the city — under the Open Door Law, which covers public meetings — could keep documents private because of the possibility of pending litigation.

The Republic filed a Freedom of Information Act request Jan. 9, contending the documents were not protected by the Open Door Law or Public Records Act, in seeking release of the restaurant’s settlement offer.

In Gamso’s Tuesday reply to the newspaper, he maintained the city could still keep the Snappy Tomato Pizza documents confidential under state law but decided to release them because doing so “will not adversely affect the city’s decision-making process regarding litigation and/or the ultimate resolution of the case.”

Larken did not return messages left Wednesday at his home or at his Clover Center restaurant, where a store employee said the owner would not be available Wednesday.

Gamso, however, had said earlier that Larken indicated his Commons restaurant was having financial problems, leading to difficulty in making rent payments.

Brown, who is chairwoman of the redevelopment commission, has said that lease payments from The Commons restaurants — including Puccini’s Smiling Teeth and Subway — help offset the taxpayers’ subsidy for the facility.

She declined an interview request Wednesday. Instead, she said by email that she would provide comments on the matter during Friday’s meeting.

Aside from Jerome, The Republic also was unable to reach the three other voting members of the redevelopment commission: Sarah Cannon, Dave Wright and Steven Scgalski.

Attorneys Gamso and Rocker also did not return repeated phone messages Wednesday.

Commons restaurant history

The dispute with Snappy Tomato is the second major disruption over the past year among restaurant tenants in The Commons.

The city and owners of the former Scotty’s Burger Joint and Detour American Grille and Bar had disagreements over unpaid rent and utilities and the company’s change of name and theme for the restaurant, before Detour left overnight in March.

In July, the Redevelopment Commission contracted with Russell Development Co. to market and find potential renters for the vacant space, which it began doing Aug. 1.

Brian Russell, president of Russell Development Co., recommended that the Scotty’s/Detour space be filled with an Irish/British-themed restaurant called Jordy McTaggart’s Grill and Pub, which is expected to open in late spring.

Tim Rohrer and David Baker, owners of the restaurant, agreed to pay $60,621 a year in rent to the city for the first five years of its 25-year agreement with the city under a lease signed Dec. 6 by the redevelopment commission.

For its role in the tenant-search process, Russell Development will receive 6 percent of the rent for the first 10 years, or $37,199.

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