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MONDAY, AUG. 13 — A legal battle waged by one of the last tenants at the Lansing City Market could hinder plans to reinvent the space as a riverside bar clings to life and city officials plan to push forward without it.
Waterfront Bar & Grill owner Scott Simmons filed a lawsuit last month against the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority amid an attempt to divert the city’s ongoing plans to evict his business from the market. And a court hearing could soon see a judge decide whether the bar has the legal right to stay on the premises.
“We’re closing the market and we’re envisioning the future for that space,” said Lansing Mayor Andy Schor. “We’d like to maximize the entire market space for whatever can be used to reactivate that space in the future.”
Schor previously suggested the City Market could stay open through the end of the summer but he wants to see some major transformations to ensure the facility can remain open into another year. That simply won’t be possible as long as tenants continue to drain thousands annually from city coffers, Schor said.
“We needed something sustainable moving forward so taxpayers aren’t subsidizing that space,” he added.
Fewer visitors over the years have forced most vendors to abandon their stake in the embattled market along the Grand River, essentially creating an almost empty warehouse with a bar at one end. Federal officials eventually pulled its ability to accept Bridge card food benefits because it was no longer considered a viable farmers market.
The City Council slashed the market’s subsidy and removed its permanent site designation. Schor backed away from initial plans to sell off the facility to developers, but officials have yet to make any decisions about the future as they continue to field suggestions. And subsidizing Simmons’ bar isn’t part of the plan.
LEPFA President and CEO Scott Keith in May sought to terminate the lease at the Waterfront, sending notice to Simmons that he and his staff must vacate the city-owned property by July. Simmons sent a letter of his own the following week that sought to force city officials into honoring an option for a three-year renewal to the lease.
That renewal clause could be the deciding factor when the case lands before Judge Joyce Dragonchuk on Wednesday in 30th Circuit Court. Simmons argued Waterfront can stay through 2021. He wants thousands in cash damages under the claim the city interfered with his business and violated the terms of the lease agreement.
LEPFA, represented by attorney David Russell, just wants to kick Waterfront to the curb. The city never agreed to an automatic renewal clause, Keith claimed. And besides, years of various ordinance and rule violations gives his office plenty of reasons to send Waterfront packing regardless of the language in the lease, records state.
“They were the only tenant not on a month-to-month lease,” Keith added. “We wanted to move in a new direction. They have their interpretation of the lease and we have ours. It takes a legal opinion to determine who has the correct interpretation. Hopefully this will get settled and the city can move forward in a new direction.”
Simmons’ lawsuit maintains the city violated the terms of the agreement with its recent eviction attempts. He argued officials impeded his business and wants a cash payout for “adverse publicity.” Court records state the restaurant would be forced to close if the lease was cut short and it would take at least 25 jobs along with it.
The lawsuit claims the city stifled Waterfront’s business by blocking parking spaces with food trucks and refusing to help find an alternative location. Simmons seeks a court order that would prohibit the city from “interfering” with his business.
Calls to him and his attorney Adel Fakhouri were not returned for this story.
But LEPFA’s attorney argues that the lease doesn’t contain a “unilateral right” to extend the agreement for another three-year term. And even if it did, Russell wrote, “repeated breaches” of the lease — including numerous health, noise, parking and liquor licensing violations — gives LEPFA an “independent and separate” basis to terminate the agreement.
The paragraph in question was altered from its original format to include a renewal option but it wasn’t marked with initials of LEPFA officials. Both parties signed the agreement, but Keith argued the proposed change regarding the lease renewal never took effect because he never agreed to that specific portion.
“Even if that language was there, one party can’t renew it without the agreement of the other,” Keith added.
Waterfront employees also regularly parked in designated customer spaces, Russell claimed. And Simmons made numerous alterations — like the installation of a sink and soda dispenser — without LEPFA’s permission. Bar staff was also warned four times about obnoxiously loud music but failed to remedy the situation, records state.
Court records further claim Waterfront violated food safety standards, failed to properly store foods at adequate temperatures and improperly maintained employee hand-washing stations. Simmons was also penalized after he was found to be “intoxicated” at his bar before he “allegedly committed assault and battery,” records state.
Simmons, therefore, has “failed to comply with the requirements of the lease and the rules and regulations and has, instead, repeatedly breached the agreements and violated applicable laws and codes,” according to LEPFA.
Dragonchuk will review the case on Wednesday afternoon. Waterfront was open on Monday but Schor said Simmons is operating it without a valid, written lease.
Visit lansingcitypulse.com for continued coverage.