The City Council denied serving as the pass-through for Wall Street and Main Inc.’s Building Restoration and Reuse Grant application, which sought to provide more than $150,000 for building improvements and bring 20 full-time jobs to the downtown bakery, cafe and full-service restaurant.
Property owner Vince Burgess and manager Rusty Jackson approached the city about applying for a N.C. Rural Economic Development Center grant application for their under-construction venture at 101 Wall St, with $152,000 being dependent on 20 full-time jobs being created at the location. Discussion on the matter was tabled by the Council last month so more information could be obtained on the application.
Jackson spoke to the matter at this week’s Council meeting.
“I just need to apply for the grant. It’s not a grant from the city, it’s from the state,” Jackson said. “I need you to sign the resolution to send off to them.”
She said a good amount of work had already gone into the project, which would bring a viable business to the downtown along with 20 much-needed full-time jobs (35 hours per week). Some city officials have expressed apprehension as to whether those jobs would come to fruition.
“I know (20 jobs) sounds excessive, but it’s 12,000 square feet with three businesses and one central kitchen,” said Jackson. “The Burgess Group is putting in $950,000 for the restoration and equipment. There was a lot in demolition. We had to rip it down to bare bones and put in about a quarter mile or half mile of steel I-beams throughout the three floors. We’ve also put in the duct work, we’ve stripped down the walls down to the brick, put in insulated windows and the exterior facade, which is beautiful. It was corrugated steel before this.”
Mayor Lew Starling said the building was “very attractive.” He then asked the wishes of the board.
Councilman Steve Stefanovich said he looked forward to the venture, but raised concerns with city time that would have to be involved as a stipulation of the Building Reuse grant.
“I’m all for the project, I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing and what you’ve got going on down there,” said Stefanovich. “Our city is looking forward to you opening and serving some great food there. My concern, first, is the number of employees. I don’t know the restaurant business, so I’m not one to say ‘there’s no way she needs 20 full-time people.’ My real concern is from the city standpoint. Knowing some of the cutbacks we’ve been making in the city from our staff, my big concern is that we do have a responsibility.”
The grant would be funneled through the city of Clinton and to the applicants with the stipulation that the 20 jobs be maintained for six months. If they are not, then the applicants would have to repay $8,000 for every job not created or maintained. Any necessary action to get the money back would be the responsibility of the city, according to city officials. While Wall Street and Main would administer, operate and maintain the businesses, the city’s responsibilities would be to verify and maintain records, distribute funds and ensure all state and federal regulations are followed, as well as proper documents furnished to the state.
“I’m looking at it from ‘what do we have to do here to meet our obligations?” said Stefanovich. “We have such great relationships with all these grant sources. I don’t want us to get behind with our obligations. With the current staffing, that’s my concern. I hear all the time that our folks are stretched. They’re working their fingers to the bone to get what they need done. With additional responsibilities, obviously something is going to go lacking.”
Connet said the city was “absolutely not” in a position to hire anybody in the 2012-13 budget. Connet said he and Clinton-Sampson planning director Mary Rose have had discussions about staffing. Based on grants the city itself has received, as well as the work the Clinton-Sampson Planning Department does for both the city and the county, staff already had their hands full, he said.
“They do have limited capacity to take on new projects,” Connet remarked. “We’re actually trying to phase out some projects. There is some concern on our side, from the capacity side, to make sure we have the staff time to document and dot I’s and cross Ts.”
Jackson said she had already invested in a system that would track employees, their rate of pay and hours. She said she did not believe the paperwork involved was very in-depth, especially considering that she would be tracking employees anyway. “I don’t see it as being too difficult,” she noted.
“I know every time I, as an employer, look at something I’m always saying ‘there’s nothing to this, you ought to do this in five minutes — and it’s always five hours,” Stefanovich said. “I unfortunately have that fault too.”
“Ms. Jackson has the benefit of looking at it and she’s confident it will be a success,” Connet added. “From a staff side, we’re going to be looking at what work will be created if it’s not a success. We’re going to be more conservative. It would take a great deal of time, as far as tracking, if it was not a success. We absolutely hope it’s going to be successful.”
Connet said the city has had several Building Reuse applications in the past, but had chosen not to move forward with them. He noted a housing project several years ago in which the city served as a pass-through agency — it “wasn’t very successful,” he noted. Since then, the city has not chosen to serve as a go-between.
Jackson said traditionally, in the restaurant business, even if she did everything wrong, the six-month employment obligation would still be met. That is how it works with the interest piqued by new endeavors.
“Everyone will still come the first six months regardless,” Jackson said. “They might not come back. That’s my job, to make sure they come back, but everybody comes to a new restaurant when it first opens. I will be busy for the first six months.”
Councilman Neal Strickland said the Council wants Jackson to be more successful than just the first six months. Jackson agreed, saying she wanted to be at the location a “long, long time,” but for the city’s purposes she would at least be able to meet the obligation of the grant. She said she was hopeful and confident she would be able to offer the jobs well into the future.
There is a need for job creation in Clinton, Jackson said, and she wanted to offer the opportunity.
“I have tried to look for a job in Clinton before, and they are few and far between,” Jackson said. “Being able to offer people full-time employment I think is a real plus.”
Jackson previously operated a bakery in Roseboro, which she closed to move to Clinton. She is currently working out of her house in Salemburg. Jackson started as a chef, owning three restaurants over the years and working in Las Vegas, Colorado and Arizona. She has been an executive chef at resorts and other restaurants.
“I know the bakery will be very successful, because I’m already very successful at it,” said Jackson. “I am that nice lady that made your wedding cake, your baby’s first cake and your daughter’s graduation cake. People will come because of me.”
Strickland lauded Jackson’s skills as a baker. Stefanovich said he did not have any doubts about Jackson, her track record or that the bakery, cafe and restaurant could prove successful. He said he could not get past the city’s obligation.
“We’re pulling for you, we want to open tomorrow and be successful,” Stefanovich said. “It’s the city part that I have my real issue with.”
He made a motion to deny the request. The vote was unanimous.
“Good luck,” Starling said.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.