by Lauren Barber and Jordan Green

Uncertainty surrounding the future of Café Europa, a beloved restaurant in the Greensboro Cultural Center, prompted an eruption of protest on Facebook and elevated a debate about the fate of a local business that leases publicly owned real-estate in the city’s burgeoning center city.

Greensboro Downtown Parks Inc., a nonprofit that operates Center City Park and LeBauer Park, issued a request for proposal on Jan. 9 seeking bids to operate two food kiosks in LeBauer Park and the full-service restaurant, which is currently occupied by Café Europa. The restaurant space in the cultural center is located at the south end of LeBauer Park. The 24-member board of directors for the nonprofit includes Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Councilman Justin Outling, Action Greensboro Executive Director Cecelia Thompson, Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Zack Matheny and Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro President Walker Sanders, among others.

The Greensboro Cultural Center, which houses Café Europa, is owned by the city. The city began leasing space to John Rudy, who opened Café Europa in 2000. Pucilowski, who worked his way up from a server position, bought the business when Rudy retired in 2014.

Pucilowski’s supporters took to Facebook on Wednesday, arguing that the city is bullying a small business owner, while hinting that the competitive bidding process sets up an opportunity for a powerful developer like Marty Kotis.

“I’m disheartened to realize our city coffers are in dire need of wringing another $12,000 a year from a small business owner,” Jeffrey Barbour wrote. “City cared not one iota about the hardships endured during the interminable construction of LeBauer Park…. Is this Greensboro’s version of gratitude? Can’t wait to see it become another Kotis-esque revolving failure.”

Mayor Vaughan issued a statement on Facebook on Thursday morning. While complimenting Café Europa’s food and service, she noted that the restaurant is currently leasing the space at less than market value.

“Their space consists of approximately 5,060 square feet (2,835 restaurant; the balance is patio),” Vaughan wrote. “They pay $6.70 for the restaurant space and $1.34 for the patio area. Unlike other restaurants, they pay no utilities, building maintenance, garbage collection of provide bathroom facilities. The average restaurant rent in downtown is approximately $15.50 [per] square foot (and some pay a percentage of sales). I don’t know the value of a patio space. And they pay all of the above add-ons.”

Amid complaints that the city has not operated transparently in shifting management of the restaurant space from the parks and recreation department to the nonprofit, Vaughan acknowledged in her statement: “I will take some responsibility for not being an active board member of Downtown Parks.”

In an interview with Triad City Beat, Vaughan said that since the nonprofit is “over the park and over the food kiosks, it made sense to bring the food services under one umbrella, and include the restaurant in the RFP.” She said the transition will be complete when a vendor for the kiosks and the restaurant is selected.

Vaughan added that she will ask her fellow board members at Greensboro Downtown Parks Inc. to give Pucilowski “the right of first refusal to bring their lease into alignment and reflect similar terms and conditions of other downtown small business restaurants.”

Pucilowski said he intends to submit a bid.

UPDATE, Jan. 26, 3:43 p.m.: City Attorney Tom Carruthers has advised “against curtailing the RFP process,” cautioning that the city could open itself up to a lawsuit due to prior precedent, according to Mayor Vaughan. In other words, she has to scratch that offer to give Pucilowski first right of refusal.

“I hope Jakub prevails,” Vaughan said.

UPDATE, Jan. 27, 6:37 p.m.: Developer-restaurateur Marty Kotis says he has no interest in the restaurant space in the Greensboro Cultural Center, and has had no conversations with either the city or Greensboro Downtown Parks Inc. about the matter.

“I own properties,” Kotis said. “My restaurants go in properties I own. I have no interest in Cafe Europa. I wasn’t even aware of it until I saw my name pop up in a news alert about this. We weren’t even contacted about it.”

Kotis added that he did not attend a meeting for people interested in bid meeting on Jan. 25.

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