Library officials called an end this week to the latest effort to lease the coffee shop space at the Main Library, which hasn’t had a permanent tenant since Shelby’s Coffee Shop closed in April 2009.
Nearly four months ago, the city agreed to pay Margie Seaman of Seaman Realty & Management Co. $2,500 to find a tenant and negotiate a lease for the 2,000-square-foot space near the Laura Street entrance at the Main Library.
It was the first time the city had hired a private sector real estate professional to lease space in a city-owned building.
Nearly four months later, and with no new tenant, the city called an end to the effort and told Seaman to send an invoice.
Seaman said the facility’s challenges included having no kitchen equipment. Plus, she said, the one applicant who submitted 60 pages of documentation was told it wasn’t enough.
It was the second failed attempt to bring a new business to the facility.
Last year, Library Director Barbara Gubbin and the board of trustees decided there needed to again be a café in the space.
After Shelby’s closed, the facility had been used only as a merchandise store for the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, as a temporary headquarters for the One Spark crowdfunding festival and a space for the restoration of the Lee Adams mural now exhibited at the Main Library.
In January 2013, the city issued a Request for Proposals. When the deadline for submissions came March 13, not a single response had been received.
“Where do we go from here?” became the question after the RFP failed to produce any response, said Mark Merritt, deputy director of administration and finance for the library.
Gubbin and the board decided to try a new approach – retain the services of a broker to actively seek a qualified operator and tenant.
The choice was Seaman, national director of commercial real estate services for Sellers Realty Group. She has leased similar spaces Downtown to Pho A Noodle Bar, The Volstead Lounge and the Downtown Cigar Bar. She also represents developer Mike Langton.
According to the bid specifications, the city requires candidates to have three years of continuous experience within the last 10 years in the ownership, management or operation of a café or restaurant. The city was seeking a five-year lease with three optional one-year extensions.
Potential lessees also are required to submit a description of the “concept” for the café, a proposed menu with possible price ranges for all items, a drawing of café signage and a conceptual floor plan showing the layout of tables and service areas.
The minimum menu required comprises espresso drinks, coffees, teas, sodas, bottled water, bottled juices (non-staining), fresh pastries, fruit and yogurt. Prepared soups, salads and sandwiches are options, according to the bid specifications.
Seaman said leasing the space had its challenges, particularly in how the space is equipped for food service.
When prospective lessees learned there was no kitchen equipment or ventilation hood in the space, she said, “They hung up on me.”
She said she had three possible tenants who expressed interest in leasing the space.
One submitted an application and business plan, but Gubbin on Jan. 27 notified the applicant there wasn’t enough information to show the operation would financially succeed.
Another challenge was the level of business experience and degree of financial disclosure the city requires before a vendor can lease the coffee shop.
Seaman said the lone applicant submitted 60 pages of information in the application.
“But it wasn’t good enough for the city,” she said.
Based on her experience in Downtown’s commercial real estate market as it exists, Seaman said leasing prospects other than well-established corporate entities fall into the category of what she calls the “first wave” of urban business immigrants.
“It’s artists and first-time-out entrepreneurs. It’s a whole bunch of art galleries and free use of space. It’s people who might have $20,000 (to start a business). The city is asking for a 60-page doctoral thesis. It’s unrealistic,” she said.
Yet another challenge is the monthly lease rate the city is seeking for the space, which Merritt said is $2,000 per month.
“Most people might pay $200 a month for that space,” said Seaman.
Merritt’s letter to Seaman thanked her for her work and said the library and city “are re-evaluating the concept and usage plans for this space.”
On Tuesday, Merritt told the Daily Record, “Did we set our goals too high? Maybe so.”
The space likely will remain unoccupied indefinitely, since the city itself has no plans to establish a food service operation.
Merritt said the next step will be to more involve the city Office of Economic Development and/or the Downtown Investment Authority in the search for a coffee shop operator.
The city or the library could choose to install the facilities needed for a kitchen in the space, which could make the space easier to lease.
“No door is closed. We’re not done trying,” Merritt said.
Back to the drawing board — again.