Troubled Common Ground closes

Posted

Thursday, November 8
BRATTLEBORO -- When the Common Ground Restaurant closed its doors Friday night, its extended family of workers, board members and community supporters hoped it would not be for the last time.

But with debts mounting and the threat of foreclosure looming, those involved with the 36-year-old Brattleboro institution agree that something major needs to happen -- and that could very well mean selling the place.

"None of us want the restaurant to be closed. We want it to be running. We're just trying to figure out what our next step can be because we're in financial trouble right now," said Katherine Nelson, a Common Ground worker-owner.

With roughly $19,000 owed in back taxes and $144,000 worth of loans, the Common Ground's board of directors agreed Tuesday night to ask Brattleboro Savings & Loan for a three-month reprieve, during which it will try to create a new business plan, find new investors or sell it to somebody who can keep the spirit alive.

"We've decided together to close and to seek three months from the bank so that we can find a way to make money here and be in business again," said Ian Bigelow, a worker-owner who was instrumental in reopening the restaurant last November after years of vacancy.

But while all involved with the Common Ground say they hope to save the cooperative organization and preserve the spirit that defines it, not all agree on just how to make that happen.

"We're open to all ideas in the next 90 days that can result in the Common Ground being resurrected in that space with the same values the Common Ground has held for 36 years," said Larry Bloch, a board member whose financial support last year enabled the restaurant to reopen.

The best case scenario, Bloch believes, is for an investor with the financial means and a commitment to the organization's values to buy the physical plant and license the Common Ground's name from its current board of directors.

That arrangement, which is similar to the one Bloch employed when he sold the famed New York City music club The Wetlands Preserve, would retain control over the Common Ground identity, which he believes is its greatest asset. The arrangement could ensure that whoever assumes control of the establishment would have to abide by certain standards settled on by the board.

"My goal and the board's goal is to hold onto and preserve the Common Ground's name," he said.

There are other, less appealing options that still must be considered in order to prevent foreclosure, Bloch said. One would include selling the building but holding onto the name, so that the Common Ground could reopen in another space at some point in the future.

"In foreclosure the name can disappear. The bank has the right to any and all assets including the name," Bloch said. "So we as a board have to work hard to avoid foreclosure and avoid that scenario."

Michael Marantz, a board member who has been involved with the Common Ground for several years, disagrees vehemently with Bloch. He says that selling the Common Ground -- even to a sympathetic investor -- is antithetical to all it stands for.

"It would be wrong of the Common Ground to be sold for money to whoever can solve our bottom line. The money problem is not the basic criteria from which we will make decisions, in my view," Marantz said.

Marantz, who has publicly feuded with Bloch in recent weeks, accuses Bloch of engaging in a power grab and trying to sell the restaurant to the highest bidder.

"The only way to keep it always like the Common Ground is to keep worker ownership, because if it's worker-owned, it will never be sold to someone looking for a profit," he said.

According to Marantz, Bloch re-wrote the bylaws to transfer ownership to the board of directors and then coerced worker-owners into signing a document giving sole control to himself.

But board member Lynn Barrett said she believes Marantz "has his own idea of the facts."

"Larry is the one who's put the money down. He was the one who put up money so the Common Ground could even open and start again. I think there's a lot of talk going back and forth by people who really don't have a sense of reality," she said.

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Bloch's financial commitment to the Common Ground runs deep. In addition to investing $40,000 in cash, he said, he has also guaranteed an additional $140,000 in loans.

"I haven't acted in any way that gets at some sort of power thing," he said. "It's quite the opposite. I put all the money in and turned it over to inexperienced worker-owners because I believed in the vision."

Bloch confirmed that the board of directors signed a document in October granting him the right "to negotiate and conclude the sale of any or all of the assets" of the Common Ground, but he said he has no intention of selling the place without the board's approval.

"It's just sitting in a drawer. I'm not acting on it," he said of the agreement.

"If everyone walks away and says 'I'm done with this, it's too much work, it's not going to happen,' who's responsible? Well, I'm willing to be responsible," he said. "I'm not trying to take any control whatsoever. I just want to have the buck stopped in case it comes down to that point."

While Bloch said he believes in the idea of worker-ownership, the fact of the matter is that he is the one who is ultimately responsible for paying back the Common Ground's loans.

"The worker-owners never owned the debt. That really is the reality of the last year. So in that sense, 'worker-owner' has to come with an asterisk," he said. "The $20,000 we're in debt right now really falls on my shoulders. No one on the board has the wherewithal to deal with that debt."

Marantz argues that converting the Common Ground space into a night club or dance hall would be a cheap and easy way to start generating revenue and turning the place around.

"In my opinion a club is going to work," he said. "Pour the wine, pour the beer, let the people dance and it'll be a go."

Bloch said the board is willing to consider the idea, but he does not think it is the solution to the Common Ground's problems.

"There's no one else on the board who's saying that's what we want to do now. That's not to say it's been rejected. It's on the table with everything else," he said.

According to Nelson, the Common Ground's worker-owners are willing to think out of the box, so long as whatever solution that is found stays true to the organization's ideals.

"I'm really open to suggestions. If there's something that presents itself that would benefit the community and continue the mission of the Common Ground, I would support it," she said.

Even, she said, if that includes selling the place.

"Maybe going under sole ownership might be beneficial to this place. It might alleviate some of the pressures on the workers who are trying to run a business and might not have the managerial skills to maintain a restaurant and provide an income," she said.

Nelson said that while there may be some disagreement on the board, it only comes from everybody's best intentions.

"There are people who have strong opinions about what should happen here or what kind of route we should take, but overall I think the clashes come because people want to make sure we're all on the same page," she said.

"We don't all necessarily see eye to eye, but we want to make sure that whatever happens, it's still the Common Ground."

Paul Heintz can be reached at pheintz@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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