On one side of the Commons in downtown Columbus there’s a kids’ play area – and it’s popular.
Walk out into the adjoining lobby and families stare at a giant moving sculpture called “Chaos” which takes old auto parts key to the city’s history and uses them to fling metal balls through a giant ring.
Keep moving north through the building and there’s a 65-hundred square foot restaurant — which is quiet. It’s been that way since March when the Detour restaurant which had been in the space closed. When the space was leased in 2011, it was with the understanding it would become a Scotty’s Burger Joint restaurant. But between late 2011 and March of this year, two things changed: The city changed mayoral administrations and investors Mark Maddox and Mert Shipman severed their relationship with Scotty’s, an Indianapolis-based chain. The owners quickly signed on with Detour and reopened a similar restaurant in the space. The reopening led to a vote by the Columbus Redevelopment Commission to sue Maddox and Shipman for breaking their lease, arguing it calls only for a Scotty’s and any other business violates the agreement. Maddox says that came as a surprise.
“Mert Shipman told the mayor very specifically that we were probably going to be terminating our relationship with Scotty’s in the next month or two from the time that those discussions were had,” Maddox says. “And that we would just need to also have the lease signed or amended to reflect that. And we were told no problem. Mayor Brown herself told Mert Shipman that there wouldn’t be any problem.”
But Brown disputes that conversation ever took place.
“That’s…that’s not accurate,” she says.
Did she have conversations with Shipman and Maddox about what the space was going to be as it was changing?
“No,” Brown says.
She had no conversations with them at all as it was changing?
Even though the redevelopment commission’s suit was never filed, Maddox believes the mayor opposing his business caused it to sputter and eventually die.
“You know, to have the mayor essentially branding us in open hearing and in the media as a lease violator, I think we came off as one step short of a criminal enterprise,” he says.
But Maddox isn’t the only restaurateur who feels the administration has been antagonistic to him. Daniel Orr, a Columbus native who owns a restaurant in Bloomington, had hoped to turn a former electrical generating station into a brewpub. Orr declined multiple requests to be interviewed on tape, but in an e-mail says he felt “stabbed in the back” and “stalked” by the administration, adding “The best way to not get sick is to stay away from the infection.”
City councilman and CRC member Frank Jerome says Orr is angry the city inspected the property, which it still owns, without asking him – but only after Orr failed to secure enough financial backing for his venture. Jerome also says Maddox wasn’t paying the city what he owed.
“Even at the meetings, they said ‘Are you current with the rent?’ and he goes ‘I have the check right here.’ So he wasn’t current – he was a month behind on the rent,” Jerome says.
And not all business owners who have leases with the city are unhappy. Steve Leach runs The Garage restaurant and says he finds the mayor communicative with him.
“They’ve very responsive, if we see an issue or a problem or things like that. Not only as a landlord, but just as a business owner in downtown, I really feel like they’re truly listening to us, just as the previous administration did too.”
But Jerome says the mayor’s communication skills need work.
“Our mayor’s style is a little more businesslike and a little more…standoffish, I don’t know,” Jerome says.
“Dare I say the word paranoia? She thinks we’re working against her and we’re not. The city council is trying to sabotage something that she wants. We’re not trying to do anything like that. We’re just trying to do what we’re supposed to do and communication would help.”
A senior administration official who asked not to be identified but is charged with improving economic development, says the mayor needs more of a “personal touch.” Jerome says the mayor’s frequent use of foul language is off-putting, too.
Mark Maddox has poured his money into a Detour restaurant in the Geist area on Indianapolis’ northeast side and hopes to use the furniture from the Columbus location in a soon-to-open space in Carmel.
“In downtown Columbus, we had the mayor leading a charge to basically kick us out of our space,” Maddox says. “In Geist, we had the Geist Chamber of Commerce contacting us and offering to do a ribbon-cutting ceremony.”
Both Maddox and Orr say they’ll never invest in Columbus again.