WILMINGTON — It has been six months since the Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel development missed its deadline to build public bathrooms in exchange for the expedited opening of BlackFinn Ameripub. Now that BlackFinn is closing, the developer appears to be further violating its agreement with the city – but city staff and elected officials are struggling to provide an explanation.
The public bathroom issue
The issue dates back to an agreement made last year between the city and the Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel (NRMH) project, owned by USA InvestCo CEO Charles “Chuck” Schoninger. In order to open BlackFinn and Vida Cantina restaurants in time for last year’s Wells Fargo tournament, Schoninger appealed to City Council to amend his development agreement.
In exchange for green-lighting BlackFinn’s expedited opening, City Council gave Schoninger 90 days to build public bathrooms on that section of the Riverwalk. If the bathrooms were not built, Schoninger was to pay the city $250,000 – and the city would then assume the responsibility of constructing them.
As part of the deal, Schoninger also got the public path of the Riverwalk re-routed behind the restaurants — that’s why the riverfront path along the water in front of BlackFinn and Vida is now private property. According to Deputy City Manager Tony Caudle, this additional concession was motivated by the City Council’s desire to have public bathrooms in the area.
“The original agreement with the developer would have had him build the Riverwalk on the water side of the newly constructed restrooms (on the north side of the marina) and then, once complete, provide public access thereto. The City Council agreed to allow the developer to re-route the Riverwalk behind the restaurant buildings in exchange for the construction of public bathrooms on his property,” Caudle said. “Public bathrooms in that area has been a long-held Council priority.”
Six months after the 90-day-deadline expired, NRMH has still not built bathrooms, nor has it paid the city — and the city has apparently made no effort to collect the money or build the bathrooms on its own.
City officials have mostly refused to comment on the issue, in part following interoffice emails from both City Attorney John Joye and Deputy City Attorney Meredith Everhart.
Those memos instruct the city’s communications staff not to discuss the issue. However, Councilman Kevin O’Grady and communication staff members Malissa Talbert and Dylan Lee have all repeatedly pointed out that BlackFinn’s restrooms are open to the public.
But now BlackFinn will close its doors for rebranding as Marina Grill, after Schoninger expressed his disenchantment with the chain restaurant. And Vida Cantina, for reasons Schoninger declined to elaborate on, never opened its doors.
This will leave the Riverwalk area with no public bathrooms at all, something which seems to violate even the most lenient interpretation of the city’s agreement with NRMH.
‘Basic’ questions for City Council
In an effort to get a sense of what was going on with the public bathrooms, six questions were sent to Mayor Bill Saffo, City Council members, and city staff, including Joye, Caudle, and others. While city staff were included, the questions were specifically posed to the council as elected officials.
The questions were as follows:
- Does (the closure of BlackFinn, along with its public bathrooms) seem to any of you to be a violation of the city’s agreement with NRMH?
- Will the city allow Marina Grill (the new name of the Blackfinn restaurant) to open?
- Does the city have any ability to prevent it from opening, despite what seems like flagrant and chronic violations of the MOU (the “memorandum of understanding,” from April 18, 2016)
- Does the city have any intention of taking legal action to deal with what now seems very much like a violation of the MOU?
- Does the city have any intention of ever building the public bathrooms on its own, as laid out in the MOU?
- At a certain point, are you concerned about residents and business owners doubting the city’s commitment to contracts it enters into?
For a week, there was no answer. Then, Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes directed City Manager Sterling Cheatham to respond.
In an email, Haynes told Cheatham, “it seems to me there are some basic answers” to these “basic questions.”
Cheatham’s responses were relayed by City Spokeswoman Malissa Talbert; they appear in italics below, after the original questions.
Does (the closure of BlackFinn, along with its public bathrooms) seem to any of you to be a violation of the city’s agreement with NRMH?
This is still under review at this time.
Will the city allow Marina Grill to open?
This is a separate issue from the bathrooms; we expect they would be able to open if they meet all required code requirements, have necessary permits, etc.
Does the city have any ability to prevent it from opening, despite what seems like flagrant and chronic violations of the MOU (the “memorandum of understanding,” from April 18)?
So long as they meet all local requirements, the city will not prevent the restaurant from opening.
Does the city have any intention of taking legal action to deal with what now seems very much like a violation of the MOU?
That is still under review at this time.
Does the city have any intention of ever building the public bathrooms on its own, as laid out in the MOU?
The city recognizes the need for additional public bathrooms downtown and our intent is to provide for public restaurants along the northern riverfront.
At a certain point, are you concerned about residents and business owners doubting the city’s commitment to contracts it enters into?
The city has completed numerous projects with contractual agreements. These types of complex agreements take time to complete and there are sometimes unplanned events that require additional consideration before resolution.
Cheatham’s answers do not represent an answer from City Council members or Mayor Saffo, who have still not replied.
However, while City Council has declined to discuss public bathrooms, they have publicly praised their arrangement with Schoninger’s development project.
The NRMH restaurants were a prominent stop on the recent Metro Mayors Coalition tour, in December (even though Vida Cantina never actually opened). The city also celebrated its partnership with the Port City Marina and Pier 33 – also part of Schoninger’s NRHM project – during its “Riverwalk Day,” although without mentioning NRMH by name.
Schoninger was also invited by the city to help host a delegation from Dandong, China, one of Wilmington’s sister cities. When the delegation visited in September of last year, Schoninger accompanied them on the tour, discussing with them how he had secured Chinese investment in the NRMH project.
The city is heavily invested in the NRHM — in the amount of $5 million taxpayer dollars — and considers the restaurant complex part of a “success story,” as Mayor Saffo referred to the completed Riverwalk project.
To date, only O’Grady has publicly weighed in on the situation. Although he has not responded to recent emails or phone calls, in August O’Grady seemed to suggest that the city had little intention – or at least little desire – to pursue collecting the $250,000 from NRHM and building the bathrooms.
“The bathrooms will be built, and they will be built soon,” O’Grady said at the time. “The point of the agreement isn’t for the city to build bathrooms, the point of the agreement of the agreement is to get (NRMH) to build the bathrooms, which they will.”
O’Grady also said he expected City Council to be briefed on the issue during its Sept. 5 meeting, but in the intervening months public bathrooms have yet to be publicly discussed.
For now, the situation remains unclear – something Talbert apologized for on behalf of the city.
“We realize things are still unclear at this point and will be glad to provide additional info as soon as we are able to do so,” Talbert said.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.