The saloon business

by Sam Hieb

The other day I was talking to a preservationist friend of mine about Greensboro’s latest proposed rehabilitation project, the 100-year-old downtown building known as the Cascade Saloon.

“I suppose a true libertarian would just say, ‘Tear it down,’” he said.

Well, hell yeah. By the same token, I’m trying to give the building every benefit of the doubt. I talked to another friend who is knowledgeable about eminent-domain issues, and he said he didn’t see any reason to question the Greensboro City Council’s decision to authorize City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan to begin eminent-domain proceedings to acquire the building from owner Ross Strange, especially if there was a public-safety issue.

Then I talked to a longtime Greensboro property developer and asked him what he thought should happen to the Cascade Saloon.

“I think it should be torn down,” he told me without hesitation.

But he also told me in all his years in dealing with the city he’d never seen anything like the deal that went down earlier in the June 4 council meeting.

After yet another four-hour discussion and debate, the council voted 5-4 to go with the proposal brokered (with a nice fee) by former Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston to rehab the rundown Bessemer Shopping Center. Upon purchasing the center, Alston’s development group says it will completely rehab the shopping center and fill it with tenants, including the proposed neighborhood grocery co-op at a sweetheart deal of roughly $1.60 per square foot.

According to Alston, in order to give the co-op such a good deal, his investors needed a little help from the city in the form of a $2 million forgivable loan.

The other alternative was for the city to retain ownership of the property and give the co-op a helping hand in the form of grants and loans.

In his comments supporting Alston’s proposal over the co-op’s, councilmember Zack Matheny reasoned the city “makes a terrible landlord.”

So what happened later? Matheny and six other council members voted to become landlords again by going after the Cascade Saloon.

“I can’t wait to get out of the shopping-center business and into the saloon business,” councilmember Tony Wilkins said with a touch of sarcasm. Wilkins, along with Dianne Bellamy-Small, was one of the no votes on the eminent-domain motion.

So are we heading down the same road with the Cascade Saloon as we did with the Bessemer Shopping Center? Looks like it, because beyond acquiring the building and spending $700,000 to make it structurally sound, there’s no real plan.

I know — the idea is to flip it to a developer willing to turn it into something.

But the deal’s full of trap doors. First is the value of the building, which — as city documents state — is “zero dollars.” Zero times zero is still zero, so what developer in his right mind is going to invest money in something that’s worth nothing?

The other issue of is the railroad right-of-way. The tracks run literally feet from the building, and rightof-way laws dictate that once the building is torn down, nothing can be built in its place.

Local preservationists are trying to make the case that the railroad right-of-way no longer exists. Shah- Khan said he will work on that issue as well, and told council he will seek a declaratory judgment to see if that’s indeed the case.

But again, what developer in his right mind is going to take on this project, given the proximity of the railroad and the liability that entails?

Let’s say the city is successful in acquiring the property and puts out requests for proposals. My guess is developers would look at the Bessemer Center deal and figure the city for the easy mark that it is and say, “Well, we’ll do something with it but, well, we need a little help.”

So the city offers up a forgivable loan (that means you don’t have to pay it back, you know). And one developer wants to something that’s more community oriented than another developer and the city council spends another eight hours over the course of two meetings debating the issue.

In a recent News& Record op-ed, former Guilford County economic developer Rob Bencini said cities were shooting themselves in the foot by “getting mired up in every puny distraction and addressing them with knee-jerk reactions,” i.e. food truck rules, tree limb trimming, downtown “good repair ordinance” and speakers from the floor.

The Bessemer Shopping Center was one of those issues, and the Cascade Saloon has the potential to be another one.

So if the building is indeed a public-safety issue, I say the city uses its resources to acquire it through eminent domain — then tear it down and be done with it.

Somehow I think we’ll all survive.