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Waterfront Bar & Grill eyes REO Town

Fight goes on with city over City Market site

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Waterfront Bar & Grill still clings to life inside the Lansing City Market while it wages a legal battle against the city of Lansing.

But the owner has already locked down another location as he prepares to vacate the building.

An 11th-hour order from state Appeals Court Judge Amy Ronayne Krause allows the riverside restaurant to remain inside the struggling marketplace while it dodges immediate eviction, locks down another liquor license and continues to push back against the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority, which manages the City Market.

But some city officials contended the bar’s eviction is all but inevitable. And it’s a looming reality that even owner Scott Simmons has been forced to accept as he prepares to move the restaurant south from the banks of the Grand River to a more secluded location along the Red Cedar River in REO Town at 419 Spring St.

“We’re trying to get assistance from the city to move to a different location. The main thing is we need some time in order to be able to do that,” said Liisa Speaker, an attorney representing Waterfront Bar & Grill.

She said the owner, Scott Simmons, “doesn’t want to lay people off and he doesn’t want to have to shut down the business.”

Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk tossed out a previous lawsuit last month that Simmons had leveled against LEPFA over the terms of his City Market lease. The ruling halted the case against the city and cleared the way for his riverside restaurant to be evicted by Dec. 5. But the bar is still pouring drinks more than a week later.

Krause’s recent order, despite pushback from LEPFA, now allows the Waterfront to continue its business operations while Simmons appeals the decision. Attorneys representing LEPFA, however, labeled the maneuver as nothing more than a “thinly veiled attempt” to extend the expired lease well beyond its terms.

“Instead of letting the trial court decide this matter, Simmons took an ambush approach by waiting until the afternoon before the date of eviction to file a motion,” according to a response from LEPFA. “Simmons’ requested stay should be viewed for what it is — another attempt to delay the enforcement of the lease.”

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor announced plans this year to close the City Market by the end of the summer after the City Council slashed its annual subsidy in half to $40,000. Officials subsequently solicited proposals that could eventually allow a developer to help breathe new life into the struggling market along the Grand River.

Simmons, the last City Market tenant, posed an obstacle to the city’s plans. LEPFA moved to terminate its lease with Waterfront in May, but Simmons believed a clause in the lease ultimately allowed him to extend the agreement for the next three years. He sued LEPFA when officials refused to honor that extension.

Both sides bickered about the lease language before Draganchuk dismissed Simmons’ case. LEPFA attorney David Russell argued the choice for renewal was written into the lease but it didn’t give Simmons the right to personally extend the contract through 2021 unless both parties agreed. And those terms were never settled.

Those same arguments resurfaced in Waterfront’s recent appeal. The business’ forced closure would obviously cause financial concerns and push dozens of employees out of a job, according to court records. But Speaker said the continued litigation — at least at this juncture — is simply about buying more time on the way out the door.

The parcel on Spring Street is a 39-yearold vacant warehouse, according to Ingham County property records. Simmons bought the site for $250,000 back in 2016. Speaker said it also includes 300 feet of river frontage — meaning the bar will likely retain its namesake when it eventually moves about five minutes to the south.

“The primary goal is to be able to move the business, and we’re looking for the city to help with that transition,” Speaker added. “As soon as the doors can open” on Spring Street, “my client plans to leave the market but you can’t magically snap your fingers and get a liquor license at another location. We’re working on our options.”

Speaker said the bar’s existing liquor license can only be used within a redevelopment district, like the City Market. Simmons’ new location might not fit that criterion and therefore can’t be directly transferred to Spring Street, Speaker added. And she said Simmons simply needs more time before he’ll be able to receive a new one.

“I’m hoping to resume conversations with the city very soon,” Speaker added. “I look forward to reaching out in response but that has not been physically possible for me. I’ve had to put aside a lot of work to handle this case.”

LEPFA President and CEO Scott Keith has been more than willing to help Simmons through the process for months, he said. Before the appeal was filed, LEPFA offered to extend Simmons’ lease on a month-tomonth basis through March. Simmons, however, chose to dismiss that opportunity in favor of another lawsuit.

And there’s no guarantee that same offer will ever return to the table, especially given Simmons’ recent appeal.

“It’s not really LEPFA’s responsibility to help find them a new location,” Keith added. “With the fact that they filed this lawsuit and then appealed, I think the city may be a little less willing to work with them at this point.”

Speaker said LEPFA’s willingness to extend Waterfront’s lease through the spring doesn’t help the bar anyway. The process to apply for a new liquor license can take three to six months. Simmons also asked the city to help shift his new property into a redevelopment district, but officials have so far refused to offer assistance, she said.

“We understand they need time to find a location and identify a liquor license,” Keith said. “I’m a little disappointed they didn’t begin that process in June when they were first notified about all of this. It was a little disappointing there, but we understood they needed more time and were willing to work with them on that.”

Court filings from LEPFA also indicate the city also has an entirely separate basis to boot Simmons from the City Market. Repeated liquor license and health code violations constitute a breach of the lease regardless, according to court records. And LEPFA argued it shouldn’t be forced to help subsidize problematic tenants.

“Waterfront is still operating at the market,” Speaker said. “How long they’ll be there? That’s a question mark.”

No hearings are scheduled as the litigation rests motionless in the Court of Appeals this week. But Krause’s order aims to expedite the proceedings. Additional filings are due from both parties over the next few weeks. Waterfront, in the meantime, will continue to pay more than $5,500 in monthly rent payments to the city.

“We expected them to stay through March under the previous negotiations regardless,” Keith added. “This is really what the decision from the appellate court gave them anyway. We were trying to negotiate with them.”

Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage at the Lansing City Market.

kyle@lansingcitypulse.com

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