Whether he realized it at the time or not, when City Council member Howard Clement moved last night to put off a decision on $175,000 for the Mok'e Jazz Cultural Center for two weeks, he was setting it at a critical time.
Oct. 5: Election Eve.
Clement and council member Cora Cole-McFadden are both up for re-election and both face multiple opponents in the Oct. 6 primary.
Both Clement and Cole-McFadden had previously expressed support for the grant, requested by Mozella McLaughlin and her three children to help renovate and expand the building she owns at 2520 Fayetteville Street for a community center with live jazz, a restaurant, rooftop garden and other amenities.
But they hedged their support at last night's council meeting, where one of Cole-McFadden's challengers and two of Clement's stated their positions on the grant and more than 20 speakers urged the council to help keep the Know Book Store -- McLaughlin's current tenant -- in business.
Cole-McFadden and Clement said they wanted a compromise that would aid both sides, and supported a delay to allow time for more negotiation between tenant and landlord, after Clement challenger Darius Little and Cole-McFadden challenger Donald Hughes spoke for the grant as community revitalization; and Clement challenger Matt Drew spoke against it as an overly risky investment of taxpayers' money.
Bookstore owner Bruce Bridges, who also runs a restaurant and holds weekly Jazz Nights at the building, has claimed McLaughlin's project could put him out of business. McLaughlin has offered Bridges a place in the Mok'e Center, but Bridges has said the increased rent he would have to pay for less space, plus giving up the restaurant operation to McLaughlin, would likely cripple his store.
Monday night, Bridges tossed a new issue into the dispute by asking the council to grant money for his business if it approved the McLaughlin grant.
Mayor Bill Bell also tossed in a new issue, wanting to know why the financial analysis that the city economic-development department for McLaughlin's grant application had not taken into account the cost of state and federal taxes her Center would have to pay as a for-profit enterprise.
Postponing a decision, Bell said, should be for the purpose of re-analyzing the Mok'e Center's reasonable cash flow and not for dealing with the Know Book Store, which he considered an issue separate from the grant, involving landlord and tenant.
But Bridges, and other speakers, made a connection in objecting to a public subsidy for one business that would jeopardize another.
Councilman Eugene Brown, who has said the Mok'e Center is not financially viable in opposing the city grant, passionately repeated that point during the council deliberation.
Councilman Farad Ali was equally passionate in supporting the grant, saying, "This is project that has life," and maintaining that the council had unfairly subjected the McLaughlin application to terms and scrutiny it had not applied to other grants under the city's Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization program.