Claim of force majeure: Bijou by the Bay contract questioned

Jan. 15—TRAVERSE CITY — Bijou by the Bay's first season after the state shuttered theaters and other venues amid a COVID-19 outbreak didn't go as city leaders had hoped.

The movie house is inside the former Con Foster Museum in Traverse City's Clinch Park. When commissioners renewed Traverse City Film Festival's lease in August 2021 and extended it to 2033, they approved two conditions: reopen the theater by Dec. 31, 2021, and stay open for at least 200 days per year.

That didn't happen. The theater was open for about 121 days in 2022, according to an annual report from the film festival's board of directors.

While the film festival board expects better attendance and more open days, enough to meet the contract, Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe said she wants to discuss what the city does when one of its tenants doesn't meet all of its lease terms.

That's on the city commission agenda Tuesday.

Shamroe said it's the first time in her seven years in city government that she can remember a leaseholder of city property not meeting their agreement.

"I didn't bring this up with any specific results in mind by any means, but I'm very curious as to how this gets handled and how we deal with that," she said.

Shamroe, who voted against the contract extension, said she was puzzled to see the theater open briefly, then close again, then reopen later in 2022. Commissioners agreed to renew the lease a few years early because the film festival organization wanted to install an improved ventilation system to reduce the risk of COVID spread.

"I understand that staffing issues are staffing issues everywhere, but restaurants downtown aren't contractually obligated to be open X number of days or be available to the public," she said.

For its part, the film festival organization is claiming force majeure — a provision in a contract freeing both parties from obligations if an extraordinary event keeps one or both parties from meeting them, according to Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute.

Messages were left Saturday with Michael Moore, the film festival's founder and president.

In its annual report, the organization pointed to an ongoing public health emergency, with low in-person attendance at movies, restaurants, churches and more after pandemic closures lifted.

"But things lately seem to be getting better," the report stated. "TCFF programs the Bijou weekly, offering a wide selection of first-run and classic films, including free admissions on some weekends."

Attendance numbers are nearing 2019 per-show levels, and the organization is indicating that it expects the theater to be open at least 200 days in 2023, according to the report.

Shamroe said that's what commissioners heard in August 2019. She said they're not looking for a court fight and the city shouldn't be "iron-fisted" with its properties. But she added that they didn't want to let the annual report go without discussing it, including how city commissioners are kept informed of such matters.

The film festival organization has repeatedly pointed out the major renovations it completed in 2013 on what had been a shuttered and deteriorating building.

If the organization keeps falling short on its lease agreement, another organization may want a chance at leasing the building, Shamroe said.

In other business Tuesday, city commissioners will be considering a land swap and the sale of a city parking lot for a housing project.

One proposed transaction would sell Lot O at the corner of State and Cass streets to HomeStretch Nonprofit Housing, which plans to develop the lot into a four-story building with affordable housing and commercial space.

Commissioners previously asked to delay a vote on the purchase agreement because a final draft of the contract wasn't complete. Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe said she's ready to discuss the agreement now that it's back before the board, and believes the project is a good one overall.

Neighboring business and property owners previously told city leaders they want to keep some of the access that Lot O provided, but negotiations went quiet. HomeStretch CEO Jon Stimson previously said an initial concept provided that access, but the city Downtown Development Authority asked to eliminate a driveway on State Street. Commissioners put off deciding how to handle the issue until the contract was complete.

Another agreement will formalize the funding for a land swap city commissioners approved on Jan. 3. They agreed to buy land along State Street near Pine Street from Socks Construction Company for $6,599,340, with Socks Construction to buy an adjacent city parking lot for $4,913,625.

This is land that could become the site of a long-planned third parking garage, city officials said, and would be a more practical building location than the land Socks Construction will buy, as previously reported.

Shamroe said she agreed the purchase makes more sense than previous parking garage plans that would have spanned an alley. She also agreed the rising costs for the project are a concern.

That's one risk when people press city leaders not to rush into things, she said.

"I think that it's unfortunate that it costs so much, but I think it's something we need to do, because a city like ours, we should have so much parking and all that drainage and everything going onto our river," she said, adding that a parking deck would be one way to cut back.