I figured it would shake down this way: another 3-2 vote to approve – Comegys, Shields, and Smith approve while Campbell and Cohen oppose.
Tonight Salisbury City Council will discuss the question of what to do with their former downtown fire station. It’s a conundrum which would try the patience of Job, and the discussion is heated due to a number of vested interests at stake.
The city only has to consider one proposal, since a second one for the property fell through. It’s from an investor group known as Coastal Venture Properties LLC, and they are offering the city $100,000 for the property – according to land records, the building is 7,680 square feet on a piece of property roughly 2/5 of an acre, assessed for taxation purposes at just over $400,000.
Coastal Venture is planning to use the lowest floor for a restaurant, with four or five apartments above. Speaking on their behalf via a letter to the Daily Times, Bradley Gillis states the case that “(o)ur offer of $100,000 reflects only the accusation cost; we will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and completely redevelop the property into a historical, significant downtown destination.” In addition, Gillis points out, this will be a “regional self-supporting hospitality destination” and place a property back on the tax rolls.
But another group of business owners contend “(t)he buyers have failed to provide a clear picture of what they are going to do with this landmark structure.” The Local Owner Restaurant Association (LORA) objects to what they call a giveaway.
In an e-mail to supporters they claim that much of the study information used by Coastal Ventures is over thirty years old and lacks a current appraisal to reflect declining real estate values, nor have the city’s taxpayers been asked through a referendum. They suggest a better use of the property would be as “a firehouse museum, city historical site, or in the future, perhaps a part of the Eastern Shore Regional Library.” But their true objection?
We would not like to see the city of Salisbury become involved in enabling a venture group to buy a piece of property at far below its market value in order to assist that group to create a facility designed to undercut existing businesses within the city. Unfair business competition subsidized and assisted by the city cannot be tolerated by LORA, and the concept or execution of such activity should not be tolerated by any citizen of the city.
In addition, the restaurant Coastal Venture envisions would serve as a training ground for the University of Maryland – Eastern Shore’s culinary program, giving these trainees real-life experience but likely undercutting the costs incurred by LORA members. Whether that would be subsidized by the city remains to be seen, but LORA may have a case regarding unfair competition.
Complicating matters still farther is the renewed bid by Delmar blogger and political gadfly Joe Albero, who believes the property could be a office suite atop a fire museum. Purportedly he offered $250,000 cash for the building prior to the city declaring it a surplus property, but today he renewed his offer at the price of $110,000 and threatened to sue if the city accepts the Coastal Venture Properties bid. Albero already owns a building in the downtown area.
Generally I’m in favor of shifting property off the non-taxable rolls and putting it to productive private use. And while I’d prefer the price be a little bit higher and that the purchaser assumes a little bit more of the risk, they are taking some significant chances here. While LORA sees this as competition, this new venture would actually face a number of competitors already in the downtown area including Escape, Market Street Inn, Flavors, and Brew River, among others.
Unfortunately, as we saw with the Civic Center parking lot controversy earlier this year, government has a penchant to buy high and sell low. But rather than the building sit idle and use taxpayer money, on balance this is probably as good as the city will get for the property. Certainly I don’t like the idea of giving this enterprise an unfair advantage of using UMES as inexpensive labor, but on the other hand the expertise these students gain could benefit LORA members in the longer term. Meanwhile, the remining downtown restaurants will now at least have the luxury of knowing they have competition coming so they can work to improve their facilities, menus, and service.
As for Joe Albero, all he had to do was put together his proposal for consideration. I don’t think the city of Salisbury wants the building to simply go to the highest bidder – there should be a development plan and strategy for investing in the facility. Waving around a check for $110,000 or even $250,000 is great for now, but what if the building sits empty for another half-decade because his dreams of an internet empire don’t come to fruition? If there’s a more competitive arena than the restaurant business, the internet may be the one.
So we will see what happens tonight – chances are the Coastal Venture proposal will be accepted, LORA will be left fuming, and Albero will run to the nearest courtroom to plead his case. All this to divest itself of a small parcel of land with a building.
Postscript: I have been told that this deal would include a pair of city-owned lots on the river side of East Market Street. While the assessment figure is correct for the 115 South Division Street lot (Map 107, Parcel 882, 16,640 square feet with a 7,680 square foot building) it doesn’t take into account the vacant lots known as 201 South Division (Parcel 883, a 14,365 square foot lot assessed at $172,300) or 300 East Market (Parcel 884, a 4,761 square foot lot assessed at $57,100.) But the question would be whether these are buildable lots anyway given Maryland’s highly restrictive coastal regulations – for example, a 100 foot waterfront setback would render these lots essentially useless.