NARRAGANSETT – The Town Council voted to amend its leasing agreement with Pier Liquors on Monday night, potentially providing the small business another decade in its current storefront location.
According to Town Council President Matthew Mannix, the lease between the Town of Narragansett and Pier Liquors expired this past summer, and due to a court order, leasing has continued on a month-to-month basis. The order in question was delivered after a lawsuit was filed against the town by Laurie Kelly, Susan Cicilline Buonanno, Win Hames, Love Your Library, the Friends of the Library and Gilbane against the town.
That order, according to Mannix, “essentially forbade the town from changing the terms of the lease agreement between the town and Pier Liquors – whose business is on the property the town purchased from Gilbane.”
“This order has essentially tied the town’s hands and prevented us from selling the property or changing the terms of that lease that the town has inherited from Gilbane,” he added.
In his opinion, the order has not been in the best financial interest of the town, and it’s something Mannix said he’s had a lot of problems with.
“It’s essentially created a three-way stalemate,” he said, adding that “the plaintiffs do not get to start building their new library, the town cannot recoup the $2.8 million spent to purchase the old Belmont building, and Pier Liquors’ future as a business hangs in the balance.”
Mannix stressed that he isn’t in favor of kicking Pier Liquors out of the property, and that some of his fellow community members might not understand the plight of small business owners.
However, the plaintiffs have come to an agreement that partially unties the town’s hands, according to Mannix, by allowing for the lease agreement to be extended by more than just a month-to-month basis.
Although the amendment to the lease agreement, as well as the settlement agreement, will still need to be approved by the courts, according to Town Solicitor Mark Davis this lays out a five year term extension, with the option for Pier Liquors to renew for another five years.
The rent by the extended term would be increased by approximately 5 percent.
Councilman Rick Lema emphasized the important note that “the plaintiffs and the parties at Pier Liquors have agreed to this.” Though he voted in favor of the amendment, he made his feelings about the building clear.
“Everyone knows my feeling is I want them to buy the building,” he said. “I hope someday they can buy it.”
Councilman Jesse Pugh said he was happy to see these recent developments come together and stated that it was something “we basically proposed about two years ago.”
“We’ve ended up where we started,” Pugh said.
“I’m glad to see Pier Liquors have some stability,” he added. “Ten years is a pretty good chunk of time, and this could get extended beyond that. It’s always a possibility.”
During a discussion between Davis, Pugh and Councilman Patrick Murray concerning taxes and fees assessed at the property and operating costs, taxes and fees would be separate from base rent costs. If Pier Liquors were to extend their lease by five years, the price increase during the extended term would be approximately $19 more per-square-foot. A mechanism would need to be put in place if the town does see an increase in taxes though, according to Davis.
“We’re basically offering Pier Liquors the same lease under the same terms and conditions that they had when Gilbane was the owner,” Davis explained. “The calculation with regard to increase, there’s your increased taxes. Obviously we would need to address that separately. That increase in taxes ceased to exist when we purchased the building.”
“The town would not realize any increased taxes to pass onto Pier Liquors,” he went on. “That’s a provision. Again, we’re talking 14 percent of the Belmont Building – 14 percent that would be on the Belmont Building itself – 14 percent of any increase, year over year.”
It’s small dollars, according to Davis, but that’s the one piece that would not be passed on to them. The town would need to amend the lease to exclusively state how they’re going to be assessing that amount and how it’s going to be calculated, since the town is not incurring it.
Councilwoman Jill Lawler, who abstained from this vote, said she doesn’t see how the small business could take any comfort in being offered an extended lease with the current ballot initiative on the table.
“I don’t know how this could make them have a little comfort that they could have five years with the potential of five more,” Lawler said. “There is a ballot initiative put on by one of the individuals currently suing the town – Susan Buonanno – and that ballot initiative, if passed, specifically states that that building in its entirety, including the piece of property being leased by Pier Liquors, can only be used as a library.”
“I can’t see how anybody, without a red face, can say that these people must feel some comfort in getting a lease tonight,” she added.
Like Lema, Lawler said she hopes to see Pier Liquors eventually buy the property. Personally, she said she doesn’t think it’s appropriate for the town to be leasing property to a liquor store.
Community member Karen Shabshelowitz said she completely disagrees with leasing the space to Pier Liquors, and asked the council if they can put this on hold until after the election.
“Obviously, you three have been very anti-library and expanding the library, right along,” Shabshelowitz said, referring to Mannix, Lawler and Lema. “This was previous to the pandemic, which is going to make that added space all the more important to this community.”
“It seems like you’re putting one business over the needs of many families, many seniors [and] many patrons that use that library, and I’m sick and tired of it,” she added.
Others, like Stanley Wojciechowski, while appreciative of the council investigating the costs in detail, stated that the library should be the ones to move from the space, not a paying business. Paul Zonfrillo called it an unfortunate situation that’s made Pier Liquors “just a ping pong ball caught in the middle.”
“It shows you how awful the fight has become, and how the library people will do anything to win – including squeezing a mom and pop business,” he said.
During her comments to the council, Catherine Celeberto raised a question of what might happen if the council approved the lease amendment but the ballot question was approved. According to Celeberto, a recent Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling decided that settlement agreements are inviolate, meaning a future council or vote could not go back and change it.
In response to some of the comments, Murray stressed that he at no time said, implied or directed moving Pier Liquors out of their current location, while Lema stated that he was in favor of a library — just not at the pier. Given the large amount of debt the state is currently in, he said he worried that reimbursing costs for a new library construction might not be a top priority.
“I’m about low taxes and watching the people’s dollars,” Lema reiterated several times that evening.
Immediately before taking his vote, Pugh stated that of “the questions on the ballot, three of them are related to that building, none of them would preclude Pier Liquor from leasing that space if we make a deal and they sign a lease before the election.”
“It’s not going to affect that deal if it’s already signed and put in place,” he said, immediately before casting his vote in the affirmative.
During open forum later in the evening, spirited discussion over the leasing agreement and the library continued, as well as debates of campaign finances, honesty and ethical behavior.