During Monday night’s meeting of the St Augustine City Commission, most of the public comment was focused on either the Markland Place demolition permit or the carriage operator licenses. But, Ed Slavin, a familiar face at the meetings, used his three-minute opportunity to address the upcoming renewal of a lease on City property that he says is being done with a wink and a nod, and for good reason.
The property, owned by the City of St Augustine, is located at 81 St George Street in the very heart of Colonial Spanish Quarter; what those of us who were here for the 400th Anniversary of the founding of St Augustine will call the “restoration area”.
More than 25-years ago, the address was a vacant parcel that connected St George Street to the north end of the public parking lot. That was until former Mayor Len Weeks, Mayor Joe Boles, and their restaurant partner, Chris Way, came up with a plan to build what would become the Cracker Café.
The City of St Augustine was short on public restrooms. On that point, not much has changed over the past quarter century. Len Weeks is a contractor and submitted plans to build the restaurant on the prime city property, however the city would not sell the land. A deal was struck that allowed them a long-term lease with renewal options, sufficient to where the three partners could recoup their construction costs, pay the city rent on the land, and still earn a profit on the operation of the restaurant — the Cracker Café would have oversized, publically accessible restrooms. Everyone was happy.
As with the city’s Vision Plan, after 20 or 30 years, things change. Since the beginning, Way has withdrawn from the partnership, leaving Boles and Weeks to make good the lease. The restaurant business was sold and still operates in the building. But, so do others. The building includes space that could have served as a dining room if things took off. Instead, it was converted to retail space and rented by the partners.
At this point, Boles and Weeks are merely landlords. Well, really, sub-landlords; since all they are doing is milking a below-market lease, made two decades ago, to collect current-day rent from a retail store and a restaurant. What’s got Slavin’s attention is that the lease expires July 25th and, before it is renewed, he wants to see an “open public Sunshine hearing on the proposed five (5) year renewal”.
Alleging that the $1331.21/month rental payment for 2500 square feet of prime commercial space on St. George Street only represents 1/5 to 1/10 the comparable market rental rate, Slavin believes the deal is unfair, discriminatory, corrupt and indefensible.
“Mayor Boles must recuse himself from all discussions and debate and allow our Vice Mayor, Nancy Sikes-Kline, to preside at a quasi-judicial hearing on the nature, structure and performance of the lease and the lease payments by the lessees of 81 St. George Street,” Slavin wrote in a letter to the commissioners after his public comments were not addressed. “Your fiduciary duty to our City requires it.”