Defiant Waterfront Bar & Grill remains open at Lansing City Market

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Summer’s ending but Waterfront Bar & Grill is still standing as the last tenant at the Lansing City Market, despite the city’s efforts to boot it for more than a year.

Past reports have said it should have been out of there by now, but the Waterfront Bar & Grill is actually expanding its food menu, bringing in samplings starting Monday from Gumps BBQ, its sister restaurant located near REO Town.

“On a daily basis, we get calls asking if we’re closed,” said Patrice Drainville, the vice president of operations for Williamston’s Simmons Properties LLC, which owns the patio bar.

Waterfront manager Heather Yariger said it will participate in the opening of Rotary Park on the Grand River next week, which she believes will complement its dog-friendly patio. “We offer dog ice cream,” she said. “We water the dogs just like we water the people.”

Mayor Andy Schor still wants to close the market for good and bring in a new business to occupy that site. The city has sought offers for the property but nothing has firmed up, largely because Waterfront won’t leave. “We want the best possible use,” Schor said. “We want someone who can take an idea and make it happen.”

In May 2018, the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority tried to evict Waterfront based on past lease violations and argued that its lease did not automatically renew, as the restaurant’s owners contend. But the bar owners sued and the legal process has kept it in business.

Simmons Properties lost its case with both Ingham County Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk and the Michigan Court of Appeals. The Michigan Supreme Court should decide by mid-September whether to hear Waterfront’s case and delay a resolution. Waterfront wants to negotiate an expansion to the entire site if the court rules it has the right to stay.

If the high court passes on the case, LEPFA chief Scott Keith said the agency will move again for eviction and give Waterfront just days to get out. That would allow the agency to close the Lansing City Market for good, and the property will revert to the City of Lansing for redevelopment.

Schor, who took office in 2018, inherited the City Market mess and is uninterested in working with Waterfront. The riverfront location, particularly with the new Rotary Park, is a prime spot for the city and he wants to start over with something more vital than a shell of a city market.

“Waterfront has taken us to court over a contract that has clearly expired,” he said. “The city has been subsidizing a bar — and we don’t do that for anyone else.”

A new business would still have to deal with limited parking at the site, although Schor said the City of Lansing parking garage at the Lansing Center was being reconfigured to charge people by the hour rather than a flat $10 fee. He expects the site will attract plenty of foot traffic from the surrounding Stadium District and minor-league baseball team. “We bring thousands of people in for the Lugnuts every night, and they don’t have their own parking.”

Lansing City Market has been propped up by the city for years. After the last fresh food vendors left the site, Schor pushed the Lansing City Council to cut its annual subsidy to $40,000. That money goes to LEPFA to help with the operations for the entire market rather than directly to the tenants, which now includes just Waterfront. The bar pays $6,000 a month in rent for its corner of the otherwise empty market.

The current pole-barn building opened in 2010 as a means to keep the Lansing City Market going. The location is behind Gillespie Group’s Marketplace Apartment mid-rises that were built on the site of the old city market on Cedar Street that had operated there since 1938.

Drainville said Keith and former Mayor Virg Bernero pursued her boss, Scott Simmons, to open the bar and grill back when the market moved down the hill to its current location. Simmons had successfully operated the Riverhouse Inn on the Red Cedar River in Williamston. He invested $150,000 in the startup business, including a liquor license. “People should be angry the city would treat a local small business owner this way, after he invested in the community,” Drainville said.

Drainville blamed Bernero for souring on the new market and allowing it to decline. She said the market went through seven different managers who ran it into the ground while city powers made other designs for the site that have come and gone, such as a casino. She said rents were spiked on the other tenants, who were forced into month-to-month leases, but she argues Waterfront retained a long-term agreement — a point LEPFA disputes.

The city is pinning its eviction on Waterfront’s history of minor healthcode violations and a past late payment of rent, but Drainville said the Lansing City Market had violated their lease by failing to clean public restrooms and unilaterally taking away parking. “They made an excuse to end the lease,” she said. “They have something else in mind and they want us out.”

The city blocked its parking spaces in the construction of Rotary Park, and Drainville said the city reneged on a promise to allow market customers to use some of the spaces behind the Marketplace Apartments on the Gillespie property.

Despite marching ahead with the new menu, Waterfront and its 20 employees could be headed for a cliff. In addition to trying to negotiate their stay at the property, Simmons has tried to get the city to agree to transfer its liquor license to another location, such as a site the company has in mind near Gumps BBQ.

Drainville said despite interest from the city on a license transfer, it had been noncommittal.

Correction: An earlier version of this story in digital and print had Patrice Drainville's name spelled incorrectly. 

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