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FRIDAY, Feb. 15 — As city officials try to boot Waterfront Bar & Grill from the Lansing City Market, competition from Jackson is already looking to move in for the kill — in the form of a new brewery.
John Burtka, the owner of Grand River Brewery in Jackson, has y voiced plans to expand his business operations throughout Mid-Michigan. He wasn’t quite prepared to make a formal announcement this month, but he strongly hinted toward plans to move into the embattled marketplace along the Grand River.
“I’d imagine that there will be some type an announcement forthcoming,” Burtka said. “ Grand River Brewery originally organized there in Lansing, and it indirectly has some history there. We love the Lansing City Market space and we’re looking forward to eventually being a part of the business community there in Lansing.”
Only one hiccup: Waterfront — following a recent order from the Michigan Court of Appeals — is legally entitled to stay inside the market until a state judge rules otherwise. And company officials claimed their existing lease could ultimately give them legal authority to remain there along the riverside for the next several years.
The city thinks otherwise. A hearing is likely be scheduled next month that could offer a final determination.
“Ideally we’d like to be able to stay inside the Lansing City Market space and have the city honor our lease,” said Waterfront executive Patrice Drainville. “Obviously, the city has driven everyone out of the market and they’re not admitting what their plans are for the space, but we signed a lease for 20 years and we’d like to stay put.”
A recent order from the Court of Appeals has allowed Waterfront to dodge immediate eviction while the company looks to lock down a liquor license for another location on Spring Street in REO Town. City officials claimed Waterfront’s appeal is only an attempt to stall its inevitable departure. Drainville sees things differently.
“Our ultimate goal is to stay inside the Lansing City Market,” Drainville emphasized.
Liisa Speaker, an attorney for Waterfront Bar & Grill, said the company, as an alternative, is looking for the city’s assistance to move its liquor license to a more secluded location at 419 Spring St. The appeal essentially buys time — and keeps revenue flowing — while state officials review its transfer application, Speaker noted.
The other goal: Avoid laying off employees should the business eventually be forced to vacate the marketplace.
“Everything is still up in the air at this point,” Speaker emphasized.
An Ingham County Circuit judge tossed out a lawsuit last year that Waterfront Bar & Grill had brought against the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority over the terms of its lease. The ruling halted its case against the city and cleared the way for eviction by December — until the decision was appealed.
Attorneys for LEPFA, amid a trove of legal briefings, labeled the recent appeal as nothing more than a “thinly veiled attempt” to extend the expired lease well beyond its terms. Owner Scott Simmons took an “ambush approach” to delay the enforcement of the contract, according to filings from LEPFA attorney David Russell.
“The frustrating part, for me, is that by pushing this back, we lost probably three or four months where we could’ve been converting that space to another use,” added Lansing Mayor Andy Schor. “We tried to work with them through the end of the year but they’re asking for a lot of things we just cannot do. It’s just not possible.”
Schor announced plans last year to close the market by the end of the summer after the City Council slashed its annual subsidy in half to $40,000. Officials later solicited proposals that could eventually allow a developer (or another bar owner) to help breathe new entrepreneurial life into the struggling riverside marketplace.
Waterfront obviously posed an obstacle to the city’s plans. LEPFA moved to cut the lease in May. Both sides bickered about a clause that could have extended the agreement for the next three years. Waterfront sued and lost after the city officials refused to extend the lease.
The same arguments again surfaced when Waterfront appealed the decision. Forcing the bar to close would only push dozens of employees out of a job and gut profit margins, Speaker contended. And although Waterfront might still pull up stakes and move across town, the business is leaning on the city to assist on its way out.
Speaker said the bar’s existing liquor license can only be used within a redevelopment district, like the City Market. That designation, doesn’t apply for the Spring Street location. The company has reapplied with state regulators in an attempt to continue business elsewhere in the city.
Schor said Waterfront requested the city work to establish a new downtown development district designation for its Spring Street location — but it simply “didn’t make sense” to bend over backward for a single bar. And the city’s willingness to accommodate the business might be waning amid the continued legal fight.
“We believe we’re going to be victorious on this,” Schor added. “This whole thing is basically a delay tactic.”
Meanwhile, plans to open another Grand River Brewery location at the City Market have been discussed, Schor acknowledged. But, like Burtka, he wasn’t ready to release many details ahead of a formal announcement. Besides, the lawsuit with Waterfront will need to be sorted out long before a new business can take its place.
“We don’t have anything to share publicly,” Schor added. “(Burtka) has plans and I like them. We had two or three folks come to us with ideas. He was one of them. I think it would be a positive thing for that space, but we haven’t finalized anything yet with any one proposal. I hope to have an announcement about that soon.”
No hearings have yet been scheduled as the litigation rests in the Court of Appeals. The recent order, however, aims to expedite the proceedings. Both sides anticipate a resolution by March. Waterfront, in the meantime, continues to hold $5,500 in monthly rent in a designated escrow account for eventual payment to LEPFA.
Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage at the Lansing City Market.