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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake City News

Businesswoman Invests $300,000 In New Lake City Business. Building Czar Threatens Immediate Shutdown


Business owner, Christie Harper (left) at Mochies after the Council meeting.

LAKE CITY, FL – Last night in Lake City, City Hall, business owner Christie Harper was desperate. She told the City Council she spent $300,000 opening a Mochi franchise in the Village Square shopping center and hired 15 local college students to man the establishment. After the business was 3/4 complete, long time Building and Zoning Czar, Larry Lee, told both her and her staff that if he found more than ten seats in the place, "I will shut you down." She told the Council, "People come from church and then have to sit on the curb and eat."

Christie Harper, a successful business woman

Last night in City Hall, Ms. Harper appeared before the City Council: "My name is Christie Harper. I am the owner of the new Mochi in the Village Square. We opened on March 31st. I don't live in Lake City. I have a dear friend here who owns Zaxby's. That's how I found Lake City. I own five Zaxby's in Ocala and Tampa."

Never a problem until Lake City

Ms. Harper continued. "I submitted the plans that my architect drew up for me. He's done 10 Mochies. All the plans are very similar. On the plans it only shows 10 seats."


Ms. Harper wants to install stools by the window counters and put a couple of more tables in front of the bench along the wall. The photo was taken after Mochies had been open all day.

"I called the architect. He said don't worry about it. It is considered a mercantile; it's not a restaurant; you don't serve hot food. You can have up to 50 seats. I just use those plans to submit for all the Mochies we've done and we've never had a problem. There are three Mochies in Gainesville. They have 20 to 35 seats. The one in Ocala has 38 seats. There are three in Jacksonville and they all have more than 20 seats and there are three in Orlando. This is the first time that this has ever come about that there has been a problem with the seating."

Ms. Harper told the Council, " We have a bathroom that is handicapped accessible and to code."

Lake City Building Czar: I will shut you down


Is this what it is really about? The unisex restroom at 8 pm.

She continued, "When we were three quarters into the project Larry Lee stopped by the place. I was not there. He told them, if there are more than 10 people sitting here once we open, he will lock the doors on the place."

That scared me. I called him. We had a brief conversation. He told me that was the case.

Ms. Harper's Mochi has one handicapped unisex restroom built to code. An inspection of the restroom by the Observer showed it to be immaculate, as was the rest of her establishment.

A successful business

Ms. Harper told the Council, "We've been a lot busier than I thought we would be. The biggest complaint is people don't have anywhere to sit. I just want to get more seats in there."

Three quarters into construction Ms. Harper explained it was too late to change the plans. "I wasn't trying to bend the rules. I wasn't trying to do anything to go around the rules. I'm listening to my guys saying all the Mochies are fine with one [bathroom]; none of them have two in all these big cities, but in Lake City I have to have two - at that point I couldn't change it."

Ms. Harper read an e mail from her architect:

All Mochi stores currently have one bathroom. There are currently a total of 10 Mochies in Gainesville Jacksonville Ocala Orlando and Lake City. The codes allow mercantile classification for restaurants for food services when occupancy load is less than 50. Plumbing codes allow one unisex restroom for mercantile space up to 3000 feet... the seating increase of up to 50 does not impact the exit, fire and life safety issues. We can provide a revised new seating layout to show we can meet exit and egress width requirements.

Ms. Harper concluded: I just want to request up to the 50 seats. I don't think I need that many. I think that 30 would be adequate. We have people coming from church that want to sit and eat -- they have to sit on the curb outside, because he [Larry Lee] said I couldn't put benches outside. Customers are leaving because they have no place to sit down. I was just wondering if it would be okay if I put more seats in there.

City Manager Wendell Johnson weighed in

CM Johnson asked no one in particular, "Is that a state requirement? I would assume it is a city code requirement. Larry needs to resolve this. This is the first I've heard of this tonight. It will not be something that the Council could address tonight."

None of the City Council members asked Build and Zoning czar, Larry Lee, to come to the microphone.

Mr. Johnson asked Mr. Lee, who was sitting in the back of the room, if it was the building code.

Mr. Lee answered, "It is the health code."

CM Johnson said the health code varies from county to county. "I don't know whether or not it can be changed."

Ms. Harper said," I think the problem is interpretation. I don't know how all these big cities have this with one bathroom and it hasn't posed a problem."

CM Johnson said, "It's up to local jurisdiction. I'll meet with you. If it's a matter of interpretation we can resolve that."

Mayor Witt said he wasn't sure if it was a state or local issue.

Ms. Harper said that when she had a conversation with Mr. Lee, she told him it was up to every city or county on how they interpret the code.

CM Johnson, "I promise you we'll follow the codes. We have to conform to the rules because they're there for a reason."

In the hallway outside the Council Chamber, Ms. Harper told the Observer:

I can't believe how mean he was. Mr. Lee said, "You don't understand me ma'am, if you put more than ten seats in there I will shut you down." That's when I said I can't deal with this guy.

Epilogue

Lake City's Building and Zoning Czar Lee's threat to Ms. Harper, "I will shut you down," is unconscionable.

In most areas of the civilized world, a business owner would get a notice of violation in circumstances falling short of an exigent circumstance.  It appears that in Lake City, once again, czar action trumps the rule of law.

After the City Council meeting the Observer stopped by Ms. Harper's Mochi. The premise was immaculate; the staff was immaculate and friendly; the restroom was immaculate; and there was plenty of business.

As the Observer left Mochi, Ms. Harper said, "Mr. Johnson was very nice to me after the meeting. We set up an appointment for Wednesday." 

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On May 22, economic development expert and Lake City resident, Craig Womer wrote:

 

Lake City undermines Governor's thinking on making Florida an easy place to do business.

Any savvy business person with an ounce of common sense should take note of this story, Businesswoman Invests $300,000 In New Lake City Business, Building Czar Threatens Immediate Shutdown. This is a perfect example of why any person in their right-mind should avoid considering ANY KIND of Economic Development Expansion in the Lake City / Columbia County area of Florida!

Such actions by a governmental employee(s) as reported, clearly demonstrates the lack of progressive thinking by those who have excessive discretionary power.

Why is this an issue approximately 52 days after the business opened? This clearly indicates incompetency in all aspects of the City of Lake City Government and perhaps the need for some serious "house cleaning" at all levels of the City Government involved in this situation! I would hate to think that there might be some improprieties associated with this situation 52 days after the business opened.

The handling of this situation is unconscionable in current economic times and warrants an internal investigation of the Building and Code Enforcement Departments. I vividly remember the Blanche Hotel mess of several years ago and how that got "white-washed" into the archives of history.

Mochi's, the new business, has created jobs in a community experiencing high unemployment and clearly communicates a message that undermines Florida Governor Scott's thinking on making Florida an easy place to do business.

After reading this article there is no-way I could ever recommend starting or expanding, let alone moving a business to the Lake City / Columbia County area of North Florida, "The Gateway to Florida."

The Best Warned is forewarned! Beware of the Lake City / Columbia County, Florida demographic profile and how they conduct business! 

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On May 23, 2012, citizen49a of Lake City wrote:

The message is clear - Want to start a business in Lake City?  Think again.

First it was Mr. Maeweather with his attempt to run a shoestring business in a manner that will satisfy this bunch. Now it is Ms. Harper, with considerably more capital invested, running into the same thing. Let's be clear. Maeweather and Harper are just the two most recent cases of people who decided to appeal the shut-them-down mentality, rather than just going elsewhere.

Be assured that for every Maeweather or Harper there are ten others who decided that rather than fight they'd just cut their losses, pack their belongings, and head for the county line and freedom from the owners of this plantation.

Then there are likely twenty more who never bothered to try anything here because they were smart enough to figure out the score before they locked up any capital and exposed themselves to the depredations of the local political class.

The message is clear. You want to start a business in Lake City? You better think again. You DON"T DO ANYTHING in this city/county unless WE DECIDE to LET you.  The powers that be have an agenda, but it doesn't include promoting the prosperity and welfare of mere citizens.

If you're a multibillion dollar corporation from somewhere else, well that's different. We've got tax breaks for you. We've got utility build outs to service you. We'll build roads for you. Whatever you want – we can deliver.

This is how they do economic development in Lake City/Columbia County and it does not go unnoticed in the circles where business decisions are made.

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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