110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
No sports bar; no booze
By Jen Horton
posted Mar 18, 2014 - 8:16:06am
It wasn't easy, but it was the right thing to do, Lake Helen city commissioners said March 13, as they voted 4-1 to immediately close the city-owned Creative Arts Cafe.
Commissioner Vernon Burton was the only dissenter.
Mayor Buddy Snowden is the only member of the City Commission who was in office when the cafe opened in 2007.
He said it was a time a great excitement about something new in Lake Helen.
"A lot of good things went into it," Snowden said.
For several years, however, the restaurant has been losing thousands of dollars a month, forcing the city to subsidize its operation with tax dollars.
In the past, when the cafe was in jeopardy, citizens who had infused the restaurant project with their time, money and sweat flooded Lake Helen City Hall to protest any move to shut down the community gathering spot.
This time, however, following numerous news reports about the cafe losing more than $10,000 a month, an equal number of Lake Helen residents came out to ask the City Commission to stop the bleeding.
Commissioners voted to allow the cafe staff to keep working until the end of the month, to help shut down and clean up the restaurant. After March 31, all 19 employees will be laid off.
The multipurpose room — for classes and community meetings — remains open.
After deciding to close the cafe, the City Commission had to decide what to do with the building.
Commissioner Cameron Lane, who said he had spent a lot of time talking to interested parties, presented three options:
• Lease the cafe to Lake Helen Partners, which wants to turn it into a sports restaurant with beer and wine
• Put out an request for proposals from parties interested in leasing the restaurant
• Keep the restaurant closed, and operate the facility as a community center, in line with the ECHO grant program that helped build it. (ECHO stands for “environmental, cultural, historic or heritage, and outdoors recreation,” and the county’s ECHO grant fund is designed to help build facilities for activities in those areas.)
The City Commission decided on the third option.
City Commissioner Rick Basso said the “800-pound gorilla in the room” helped the elected leaders make their decision.
The gorilla was booze.
To accept the sports-restaurant proposal, the City Commission would have had to approve the sale of beer and wine in a public park, on the same property where the Lake Helen Police Department and the Boys and Girls Club are located.
Citizens spoke passionately against selling beer and wine at the cafe, which is also right across the street from Ivy Hawn Charter School of the Arts.
"We don't need beer and wine that close to a school," resident Russell Russ said.
Once the heartache of the cafe's loss settled in on the crowd in the City Commission meeting room, ideas poured out, and an air of excitement was nearly tangible.
Residents supported going back to the facility’s roots. The building was originally envisioned as a teen center.
Resident Raphine Pierce said that original plan brought the town together before, and will do it again.
"I don't know why we're making this so hard," Pierce said. "Why don't we just do what we started off doing, and do it well?"
The original plan, funded in part by a $156,000 ECHO grant that was matched by community donations, included the teen center and a canteen or snack bar — not a restaurant.
Veering too far off that original plan could cause the city to have to pay back the ECHO money.
The Creative Arts Cafe kitchen would be a great place for breakfast fundraisers, Vice Mayor Ann Robbins said.
She presented a plan to the City Commission that would allow nonprofit groups to host breakfast fundraisers in the cafe. The city and the club or organization would split the proceeds, with the nonprofit getting the bulk of the money.
One citizen suggested the kitchen could also be used in that way by groups, such as Boy Scouts, for fundraising spaghetti dinners.
To City Commission agreed to put together an ad-hoc committee to study the ideas, and to find the best way to keep the cafe accessible for all of the citizens to enjoy.
The motion to sever negotiations with Lake Helen Partners, and to assemble an ad-hoc committee to study options for a city-run ECHO site, passed unanimously.
The action also met with applause from the audience.
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