Business owners forced to give up property for the new light rail line along North Tryon Street said they were surprised to learn that former Mayor Patrick Cannon took a bribe from a strip club owner seeking a reprieve from the land-taking.
Some said it deepened their questions about the fairness of a construction process that has caused extensive disruption and closure of some businesses.
But others say they see it as a temporary upheaval that will be more than worth it when the 9.3-mile Lynx Blue Line extension brings streams of potential new customers their way.
CATS recently started major construction work on the extension, which officials hope to open by spring of 2017. The $1 billion-plus project will bring light-rail service from Ninth Street uptown to the UNC Charlotte main campus.
City leaders have taken property from businesses along North Tryon to clear the way for the line.
Dominica Clementi, who owns Nona’s Sweets with her mother Jo-Ann Morlando, was among at least 20 or so businesses forced to move. She said she had never heard rumors of any corruption in the process, but sometimes wondered how decisions were made.
“You wonder how some people stay and some people don’t and how things are affected,” she said. She added that it took time to rebuild the business, but the shop has become successful again at its new location near W.T. Harris Boulevard and Mallard Creek Road.
Sara Edwards, owner of the Last Place on Earth pet store, will be losing much of her parking lot, but she can offer parking in back of her building.
She said businesses along the line will ultimately benefit from the new customers that light rail will bring.
“Five or six years from now, it’ll be great,” she said. “It’s just a matter of getting through” today’s inconveniences.
Dimitrios Kotrotsios, who owned property from which six tenants were forced to move because of the light-rail extension, said he was frustrated with the city’s process to determine where the line would go.
He said when he was told the city wished to put a light-rail station on his property, he pointed out a larger parcel of land for sale nearby that he felt would be a better fit.
“I knew they weren’t going to help any,” he said.
Cannon pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of honest services wire fraud, a charge commonly used in cases where a public official takes kickbacks or bribes.
It means Cannon used his mayoral and City Council posts for illegal gain, depriving city residents of his “honest services” as their elected representative.
According to court documents, Cannon solicited and accepted a series of bribes to help an unnamed “Businessman #1,” owner of an adult entertainment club in the Blue Line extension’s path.
In January 2013, prosecutors say Cannon pocketed $2,000 from the club’s owner to influence the zoning, planning and transportation departments to make it easier for the night spot to stay in business.
The club, Twin Peeks, was owned by Charlotte strip club mogul David “Slim” Baucom. Baucom has not been charged and is not named in court documents.
Twin Peeks sat next to the light-rail route and received a delay in its closing date before being demolished in June 2013. Baucom also received permission to rebuild Twin Peeks on the remainder of the lot, according to Charlotte Area Transit System documents.
A CATS document summarizing a March 2013 meeting of Blue Line planning officials shows Nona’s Bakery was allowed to stay four or five extra months in exchange for a promise to vacate by a specific date. A HoneyBaked Ham store was allowed to stay through the Easter holiday.
The summary said Twin Peeks had also asked to stay longer but was being pursued by the state for back taxes and CATS officials weren’t sure they could enter into an agreement with the club under those circumstances.
Costly changes for owner
George Saini, owner of the Fashion Warehouse clothing store, said he is losing his parking lot and feels city officials have not compensated him fairly.
He said he must move his front door, office, bathroom and storage room – a project he estimates will cost more than $200,000. The city has offered him $64,500, according to City Council minutes.
He added that when he asked for more time to deal with the situation, city officials said no.
“The city, the federal government, they’re spending a lot of money fixing (North Tryon), but it’s a killer for us,” he said.
City officials have stressed that the condemnation process for the Blue Line must conform to strict federal guidelines that include detailed appraisals, which are also reviewed for accuracy and fairness.
In outlining the process last June, City Engineer Jeb Blackwell told City Council members: “We are trying to be fair to the property owner, to the taxpayers and also we need to be complying” with state and federal property acquisition rules.
Staff writer Ely Portillo and staff researcher Maria David contributed