Attorney/activist Eric Vickers
has made something of a cottage industry out of championing the little guy against City Hall (see his case against Paul McKee's Northside Regeneration project
, or the one against St. Louis Public Schools
Now he's at it again: Last Thursday, Vickers filed a complaint in federal court
on behalf of a near-northside gas station owner who claims the city lured him into remodeling his business, only to usher in a devastating competitor right next door.
What's more, Vickers argues (just as he did in the Northside case), the city didn't even follow its own rules in pursuing this development strategy.
The owner, Chris Westmoreland
, tells Daily RFT
that his family has owned and operated a gas station at 6020 N. Broadway
for over 44 years. Right now, it's a Mobil station called, "Go West Mart."
In 2002, city officials were a-buzz with plans to develop a large industrial park nearby. So Westmoreland got a ten-year tax abatement from city officials, plus about $2 million in public and private financing to completely revamp his facilities and add a car wash.
Westmoreland says he was assured by his alderwoman, Dionne Flowers
, that he would reap the rewards of all the new traffic generated by the industrial park - that's why he felt comfortable going into "deep debt," he says.
But in the spring of 2010, he learned that the twelve-million-dollar development in question would feature a mammoth competitor: a Love's Travel Stop and Country Store
franchise, complete with a McDonald's, Subway and showers for weary truckers.
Westmoreland was somewhat relieved when city officials told him they planned to buy him out. However, he then discovered in March 2011 that they intended to do no such thing, having bought all the land around him. They could proceed without his plot. He realized that he'd have to compete against Love's.
And the prognosis was grim: He hired a consulting firm do a feasibility study, and in April, the experts concluded that the Love's would gobble up more than half of its gasoline and retail sales.
(The city takes issue with that finding. Ivie Clay
, spokeswoman for the St. Louis Development Corporation, argued in a statement e-mailed to Daily RFT
today that "the highly visible" new Love's will attract so much traffic, Westmoreland will benefit from the spillover.)
On May 25, 2011, the city held a hearing on the zoning change for the truck stop. But Westmoreland wasn't there to protest. He claims he was never notified of the meeting.
And that's a violation of due process, according to his federal complaint. He's also alleging that the city, by causing "complete diminution in the value" of his gas station, is guilty of "taking" it "without just compensation."
Westmoreland filed a similar complaint in city circuit court in July.
No ground has been broken on the site of the planned truck stop, possibly due to the pending lawsuits.
Here's the rest of the city's statement on the project:
The Love's Travel Center project is a $12 million development on the City's near north side that will employ 80 people. It is in an area currently consisting of a salvage yard, vacant buildings and vacant lots. The Property is close to commercial and industrial areas along the riverfront, but the area lacks attractive amenities and is not attractive to new business tenants and investors. The development plans for the Property include a gas station, convenience store, two restaurants and a tire shop. A market and impact study performed for this project concluded that "trucks dominate the area, so servicing them and their owners is a crucial means for leveraging other transportation modes and for triggering reinvestment in the entire area." The Travel Center will accommodate large trucks and other needs incident to the nearby commercial and industrial facilities along the City's riverfront.
It may good for the city, but Westmoreland remains convinced that it ain't good for him.
"It's a brutal situation for me to be in," he says. "I'm 52 years old. I'm too old to start over."