We hope that by shining a light on the issues that we had, we can prevent another small business from going through what we did, by encouraging City staff to develop procedures, deadlines and accountability to those procedures.
By Amy Gringhuis and Christopher Godwaldt
Published January 25, 2013
The media exposure - including an article (subscription required) on YourHamiltonBiz and an interview with Bill Kelly (January 17, 2013, Hour 2) on AM 900 CHML - on the failed bid to get Café Oranje into the Lister Block isn't about the fact that we didn't get the space.
It's not sour grapes (or "sour crepes", as Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr put it), and we certainly have no ill feelings towards the successful candidate, Mezza Cafe. We are extremely happy for them and we're even happier that the Lister Block is going to get a ground floor retail tenant...finally.
When we were contacted by several media outlets, after tweeting about the outcome of our offer on the space, our intention was simply to shine a light on the experience we've had over the past year and a half in trying to get answers and ultimately a decision on who they wanted to lease the space to.
We also hope that by shining a light on the issues that we had, we can prevent another small business from going through what we did, by encouraging City staff to develop procedures, deadlines and accountability to those procedures.
We first contacted the city in June of 2011 to express our interest in leasing a space in the Lister block at which time we were told that they would be accepting expression of interest applications in July 2011 and that we were to watch the city of Hamilton procurement website where this would be posted.
July came and went with nothing posted and when we followed up with the city, what followed was a series of e-mails back and forth directing us to at least 5 different people within the city nearly all of who gave us different time-lines on when they would be accepting bids on the space. We were told Christmas or early 2012.
In February, we were told it would be two to three more months (which would put us into April or May 2012). With no further information forthcoming, we were finally contacted by the facilities department in early April, 2012 and told that we were on the list of interested parties looking to lease space in the Lister.
In the meantime, office workers and Tourism Hamilton took their place occupying their respective spaces and the three publicly available spaces sat empty.
The city retained the services of an external Realtor to broker the spaces, and even then there was confusion about whether we would be working directly with the Facilities Department or with the Realtor.
Once that was cleared up, our initial offer was presented to the city in late May, in time for the first deadline of June 1, 2012.
When our first offer expired with no response from the city, we had to re-submit our bid. This happened three times (due to the expiration of each while deadlines established by staff came and went) and six months later, the city finally replied asking for a re-write of our offer to accommodate several new terms relating to the lease.
We were asked for a new offer within a couple weeks, and we pushed back seeking more time to do our research, price out the new lease terms and re-write the offer, and that offer was presented to city staff on January 4, 2013, a full one and a half years after the first Expression of Interest was supposed to be public.
To say that we were frustrated with the 'process' would be an understatement. At several points we considered walking away, but each time we were given renewed hope that the process was wrapping up and that the decision was forth-coming. So we persevered, hoping that the time and energy we had already invested would yield a positive outcome.
We've read with interest the media coverage of our story and the comments from city staff, hoping to gain some insight into why this was such a painfully drawn-out and confusing process.
Instead, what we read was a quote from Rom D'Angelo, Director of Community Facilities and Capital Programs, who claimed that after they opened the spaces up for bids, "it was agreed that none of the offers were acceptable, as submitted, and not enough offers were received."
This came as a surprise to us, since we had agreed to all of the terms in the listing with the exception of their timeline. If our offer wasn't 'acceptable', why not let us know or try to negotiate with us?
Perhaps the truth was that they simply didn't have a competitive bid and wanted to draw out the process until they could attract another interested party to pit against us in an effort to drive up the lease price. If the successful bidder hadn't come along, perhaps we'd still be waiting.
We hope to get some clarity when staff presents their report to council next month, and we hope that council scrutiny will result in the implementation of transparent processes and accountability to imposed deadlines. It's a tall order but we're still hopeful.
We do want to emphasize that it definitely hasn't all been negative for us and for Café Oranje. Through this process we've met some really amazing people who work for the City of Hamilton: people who are passionate about growing this city's business community; people who believed in our business plan, encouraged us and did their best to facilitate progress.
Now that we've said our piece and hopefully made the road less rocky for those who may come after us, we are happy and grateful to move on. We've seen the process through, the decision has been made and we are truly happy for the Lister Block's new tenant. Now our focus has turned to finding another location and setting up shop.