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City shutters Club Zone, flea market
Officials: Businesses did not meet requirements of variances granted in 2008
Club Zone at the intersection of Johnson Street and West Main Street.
       Actions taken by the City of Statesboro have left two local businesses closed and more than 50 angry and confused, part-time vendors looking for a place to sell their wares.
       On Friday afternoon, Statesboro police officers delivered letters from the city clerk to the owners of Club Zone located at 201 Johnson Street, and the Statesboro Flea Market, located at 51 Highway 301 north, requiring them to surrender their business licenses for failure to comply with city parking regulations.
       City Planner Christian Lentz said the businesses were told to cease and desist operations because they failed to follow the requirements set forth in variance requests granted by the Statesboro City Council more than 18 months ago.
       "Nobody enjoys doing these things," Lentz said. "We simply don't have the luxury of discretion. If we're going to enforce the ordinances, we have to do so in a balanced and equitable manner."
       Lentz said that the normal procedure for business owners is to have the parking lot completely constructed before the city issues a business license. He said he believed the council showed compassion to the local owners by allowing them 18 months to complete what should typically be done before a business opens.
       Variance requests were granted to the Statesboro Flea Market and Club Zone, in April and June 2008 respectively, which allowed them to open their businesses without paving their parking lots as required by city zoning laws. The council approved the variances with the stipulation that the owners have their parking lots paved within 18 months. Neither business complied fully with those variances, which expired in December 2009, leading to Friday's action.
      At Wednesday's council meeting, Vincent Robertson, co-owner of Club Zone along with his wife Kimberly, was seeking another variance that would have given him additional time to pave his parking lot. During the meeting, Councilman Travis Chance said he motioned to deny the application because the owner had made little or no attempt to comply with the initial 2008 parking variance. Councilman Will Britt seconded the motion and the application was denied by a unanimous vote of council.
Chance said the council is not trying to single out any one particular business but instead trying to make sure all license holders and applicants are treated equally.
       "This is not us picking on anybody. In my opinion, for the longest time, (the city) just kind of let things take its course. We'd give a variance and then we don't look behind and make sure it gets done - it would (not get done)," Chance said. "Had the applicant actually made good on their promise in the conditional variance, we wouldn't be here."
      "Paving the parking lot and bring the structure up to code are pretty much the basic things that need to get done on order to open a business," he said. "We're not going to let Books-A-Million or T.J.Maxx open up without paving the parking lot. With (Club Zone and the Statesboro Flea Market), the council gave them more consideration because of their economic situation, but you can only go so far."
      Robertson, who said he has to cancel an upcoming benefit concert for Haitian earthquake victims, was guarded about his next move. He acknowledged he let his initial variance expire, but he said he was prepared to have the parking lot paved in the coming months before the council denied his extension.
       "I was advised by legal counsel not to contribute to the report, so that'll tell you what I'm going to do," Robertson said Saturday. "If I was given the chance, I would have paved the parking lot as noted."
       While arguing for the additional time, Robertson told council he had added gravel to the parking area behind his building and staked out the parking spaces and was prepared to pave the lot in the next couple of months.
       John Dotson, of Maxwell-Reddick and Associates, was retained by Robertson to draw up the site plan and perform a topographical survey. Dotson, when asked by council, said he had on been retained by Robertson the previous Monday, Jan. 11. He also said plans would need to be approved by the city and, depending on the speed at which those plans were approved and depending upon the weather, the parking lot could be paved in three to six months.
       Jo Jennings, owner of the Statesboro Flea Market with her husband Jerry, said the current economic environment has made it difficult for them to comply with their variance request in the allotted amount of time.
       "We were supposed to pave our parking lot and dig a retention pond (for the parking lot run-off)," Jennings said. "Well, we don't have the money and we've explained to (the council) that we don't have the money. Our business is less than two years old and we have not been able to generate the money to afford this. Just to start this business, we had to put in between $150,000 - $200,000 between the city and the state requirements.
      "We had the building, it was empty and we weren't getting any income and we said, ‘Hey, let's open a flea market - that shouldn't cost that much money.' When the city and state get involved - guess what? It costs a fortune."
       Jennings said they have paved the front of the building and one side of the building as well as installing landscaping out front. In addition, they graded the rest of the parking lot and covered it with crush-and-run.
       "You drive out there and you tell me what is wrong with the crush and run that is there now. It's level, there are no holes and there's ample parking," Jennings said. "I just fail to see, in this bad economy, where the enforcement of rules should offset the fact that this business benefits a lot of people."
       The Jennings' are not the only ones affected by the city's decision to revoke the business license. All the booth operators, which currently number around 50 according to Jo Jennings, are out of business as well.
       Al Martorano, a retiree who recently took over operations of the Horsing Around Café at the flea market, said he uses the proceeds from the café to supplement his social security. He said he purchased $350 worth of supplies for the weekend before he found out the flea market would be shut down indefinitely.
       "Today's economy is terrible. Do not these politicians have any mercy at all? For gosh sake's, we're out here trying to make a living and now we're out of work and don't know when they'll be open again," Martorano said. "Right now with the economy the way it is, politicians need to have a little mercy, otherwise, what the hell do we need them for?"
       Linda Tharpe, owner of the Running Horse Ranch in Hagan, operates Precious Puppies out of a flea market booth and said about 80 percent of her puppy business is generated by people coming into the flea market. She said she's not sure what the fuss is over the parking lot considering it is well maintained by the Jennings'.
       "I can understand the city wanting to have it be paved but the way it is now, gosh - I've been to a lot more places that aren't paved and aren't near as good as the Jennings keep it," Tharpe said. "They keep it smoothed out. Even the handicapped people that have to go in wheelchairs or those motorized (chairs) park on the side and have no problem whatsoever."
       Wendy Lee co-owns Signs By Us with her husband, Wayne, and runs a booth at the flea market. 100 percent of their sign business comes from walk-by traffic at the flea market. She said she's upset and disappointed.
       "I think it's terrible that they did that to them because they're so helpful," Lee said. "They are some of the best people I have ever met in Statesboro. They have done so much for us in helping us get going with our business - helping us find a place to live - they're such fantastic people."
       Lara Bennett operates Esmeralda's Sweet Treats and Gifts at the flea market, where she sells hand-made jewelry and candy bouquets among other things. She said she'd like to open up her own storefront on day and was using the flea market as an inexpensive way to get her business off the ground.
       "I don't want to (leave) because we're like a family up there. It's like a family business. It's not just the Jennings, it's us too," Bennett said. "I have no ill manner toward (the Jennings') about what happened. That's a lot of money to pave a parking lot - that's a huge amount of money - especially the way the economy is right now."
      Chance said he understands why the business owners and vendors would be angry, but he believes the council is in a no-win situation. He said if the council lets even small businesses skirt the rules, then future business owners will want the same treatment.
      "If we don't enforce (city ordinances), then it eats away at the integrity of the whole planning system," Chance said. "We've got a process; we've got steps we have to take to protect property values and potential investors - to get some type of order."

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