Council votes to buy Zen's

·8 min read

Jul. 28—After hearing comments from city residents, Beckley Common Council and Mayor Rob Rappold voted Tuesday in a 4-3 vote to purchase the former Zen's building and two lots on Neville Street for $1,110,000 from local businesswoman Jenny Weng.

As part of the purchase, the city will lease the space to Fruits of Labor, a popular Greenbrier County-based business that has a nationally recognized non-profit program providing work for those who are recovering from substance abuse disorder.

The meeting did not have a zen energy.

Ward III Councilman Robert Dunlap, an attorney who has represented those impacted by the transaction, recused himself from the vote due to a conflict of interest, leaving six members to vote.

At-Large Councilwoman Sherrie Hunter, Ward II Councilman Bob Canter and Ward IV Councilman Kevin Price voted in favor, while At-Large Councilman Cody Reedy, Ward I Councilman Tom Sopher and Ward V Councilwoman Janine Bullock voted down the measure.

The votes were identical to the first vote after the first reading of the proposed deal.

City attorney Bill File directed the mayor to take a vote and break the tie, which is the rule under city code. Rappold, who had worked with city treasurer Billie Trump to hammer out the purchase agreement, voted in favor.

Councilman Reedy opened a discussion, prior to the vote, in which he said that the purchase was not a wise business move. When asked by Reedy, Rappold said that the amount of Fruits of Labor's monthly lease would be worked out after the vote on the purchase but added that it would be less than $5,000 monthly.

Reedy said that the business will not have to meet a down payment of 15 percent, or around $165,000, and a $5,000 to $6,000 monthly mortgage if it were to purchse the building on its own.

"You're looking at, we're saving her over a million dollars by doing this, but we're paying $1.1 million for a building," Reedy said. "There's tons of other property uptown. Why spend $1.1 million on this building?

"Next week, my wife will come up, and we'll see if you want to buy our salon," he said, adding that the city has had to "run the homeless off" for events like the recent Great Race and "we're going to bring a drug rehab up here."

Sopher also said the purchase was not a good expenditure of the city's funds.

"How many people does it positively affect?" he questioned, adding the price was "far above average" and that the nearby Chase bank would have an asking price of $650,000 with a 1.23 acre lot and 62 paring spaces.

"The vote has nothing to do with Fruits of Labor," he added, emphasizing that the vote was about the purchase price of the property.

Canter celebrated the vote after the slightly contentious meeting.

"I'm very proud of fellow council members for making such a hard decision with the Zen's property purchase," Canter said. "This is a huge step forward, and we're going down a very optimistic path.

"Every step we make will build on the strong foundation that we laid tonight," he said, adding that larger cities are investing in similar public-private partnerships. "If we're going to continue in the tunnel vision, we're going to stay in a tunnel.

"You have to move forward."

New River Gorge Regional Development Authority Executive Director Jina Belcher and Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce CEO Michelle Rotellini both urged Council to pass the measure and spoke at the meeting in favor of the purchase.

Rotellini said that downtown is filled by bail bondsmen and attorneys, which does not communicate to visiting investors that there is pedestrian traffic downtown. They often ask, "Where are all the other businesses?" she reported.

"When you have more businesses operating in a downtown area, you have more eyes on the street, and those eyes on the street keep the people we don't want on the street away, because they don't feel like it is their backyard anymore," said Rotellini

She said public-private partnerships have been successful across the nation in bringing in businesses. Without the public support, she suggested, it is unlikely that an investor will move into downtown in its current state.

"I have wanted more than anything to put a second location of my restaurant The Dish Cafe downtown, but the times I've bought my business partner and some of my employees to look downtown, they've said to me, 'Have you lost your mind?'" she said. "That's the point.

"This project will be the catalyst for change that will get things rolling for us in downtown Beckley. That's why it's important."

Others were not as optimistic.

During Council's discussion of the vote, Kevin Reedy — COuncilman Reedy's father — and local businessman Brian Brown quipped to council that they will be at the next meeting to ask for help with business ventures.

The discussion was not without a few barbed comments between Rappold and Kevin Reedy, a developer who spoke out against the measure. Rappold and Kevin Reedy were able to pull the conversation back to civility very quickly, with encouragement from Hunter, who reminded them that Beckley had a civility resolution for public speakers.

Council heard from several speakers prior to the vote.

Brown said that other downtown buildings are available for much lower prices, including the old Roma building, which has a kitchen and is on the market for $286,000. He said the Zen's lot is narrow, that there is an egress problem and that the cost of $300,000 for a parking lot that accommodates 30 cars is "not a good benefit of our resources."

He reminded council that when an English teacher at Beckley-Stratton Middle School had requested funding to send every 8th grade student to Manhattan, New York, in 2019, she was told that "it does not set a good precedent because every school will want" help.

"The city would not invest $2,500 in the students, but is willing to invest 1.1 million in the buying of a building that is needed for a private business," said Brown. "I want a building."

Dr. Kristi Williams-Dumas pointed out that residents of three streets in Ward V had asked for help with their yard and homes after they had flooded during a recent rain, which Brown later said was a 40-year-old problem.

"We need your help," said Dumas. "Those words have been ringing in my ears since the last city council meeting."

Dumas said that the flooded residents were told that the fix "is just too expensive and exhaustive, but, in the same meeting, three of our council members and the mayor voted to purchase an over one million dollar building.

"This is unfathomable," she added.

Christina Baisden said that the term "economic development" was an "ignorant" term for the city's plan and asked for establishment of a coalition of local organizations to bring "true economic development to fruition."

Danielle Stewart was also opposed to the purchase and quoted writer Arthur Conan Doyle who said that "once you eliminate the impossible" that the remainder, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

She said that the bar Cheers, which may be relocated by the sale, pays $2,500 a month to lease part of the Zen's building, along with B&O taxes, and employs 15 people who have to pay rent and support families

"This isn't economic development," said Stewart. "This is the city evicting one business, in favor of another."

Later, Stewart said that NRGRDA and the city Code Enforcement office did not return calls about Stewart's plan to purchase the PUBlicity building downtown.

Local attorney Adam Taylor asked council to reconsider the purchase price, which he suggested was too high for the property.

"The worth of a thing is not, necessarily, the appraisal," he said. "The worth is what somebody will pay for it.

"I don't think this is it," he said of the proposed price. "I ask the city not to scrap this project but to take another look at it and see a smarter way to do it."

Taylor suggested it was unwise to move those who are in recovery from substance abuse disorder to a place that is frequented by those who are actively addicted and not in recovery.

Attorney Alan Larrick, whose law office is beside of Zen's, said he supports the purchase.

"I think downtown is in deep need of some type of restaurant," he said. "I can't imagine any other city in the state of West Virginia of 5,000 or more that doesn't have a cafe or diner.

"If someone comes into my office, there's no place to say, 'Hey, do you want to go over and have a cup of coffee?'," Larrick added. "We don't have anything downtown.

"It's terrible."

Larrick said he's hopeful Fruits of Labor will be able to invest in downtown and bring economic development to the city.

He said that, regardless of council's decision, he hoped that council members and the mayor's office and those with downtown businesses could work together.

Former Ward III Councilman Frank Williams spoke an encouraging word to council during the public comments section of the meeting, after the ordinance to purchase Zen's had been passed.

"If you voted for it, as long as it was in your heart, don't feel bad about it," he said "If you voted against it, as long as it was in your heart, don't worry about it.

"I guarantee you this," he said. "If you get out there, somebody's going to agree with you, and they're going to disagree with you. Somebody going to like you, and they not going to like you. One thing I said for years: I don't care whether you like me or not."