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Downtown deal offered only to Ezra

BRADENTON -- Downtown developers looked no further than Ezra Cafe in an effort to attract a fine dining establishment, negotiators of an incentive package said Friday.

Ron Allen, a project manager for SunTrust Building owner Third Avenue Associates, said no other restaurants were brought into negotiations for what became $250,000 worth of construction contributions and rent subsidies.

As a result of the incentives, Ezra Cafe is negotiating a lease to move this summer from its west Bradenton location to the SunTrust Building, 1001 Third Ave. W.

Allen, the president of NDC Construction, said he and his partners like Ezra’s food and catering and were comfortable working with owner Donna Eason, who has owned the restaurant for seven years.

“We had been trying to find a solution to bringing a restaurant into downtown,” Allen said. “That led directly to discussions with Donna.”

DDA Board Chairman Will Robinson agreed that Ezra was the obvious choice.

“Very few other restaurants would provide such a great fit with what we’re looking for,” Robinson said. “Ezra is a special restaurant.”

The incentive package, funded by the DDA and contingent upon Ezra signing the lease, offers $150,000 for construction of a 4,253-square-foot restaurant on the first floor of the SunTrust Building and $100,000 in rent subsidies.

Though he voted in favor of the incentives, DDA board member Cork Miller said he fears the deal might set a precedent for future negotiations with businesses looking to relocate downtown.

That issue was on the minds of a couple his fellow business owners on Old Main Street.

“It’s like a slap in the face,” one said.

“I’m all for more restaurants coming downtown, but I wish the DDA would give me $250,000 to expand,” another said.

Eason said she understands the concern about opening a restaurant downtown.

“It’s a big undertaking,” Eason said. “I feel like I have a lot on my shoulders. I’m setting the precedent for other businesses. ... My goal is to help bring other businesses into the area.”

Robinson said the city could only hope to be fortunate enough to have to negotiate several such deals.

“My response is I hope we set a precedent,” he said. “I hope we have restaurant after restaurant that lines up to come downtown.”

While that scenario would create more competition for downtown restaurants such as Mattison’s Riverside, Chef Paul Mattison says he’s OK with that.

“People want several choices. They want a lively atmosphere,” Mattison said. “It’s a huge effort to revitalize downtown which is great and so needed. I love the fact that they’re offering a program that helps an independent operator. It would have been less exciting if it was a huge chain restaurant.”

Mattison understands the power government incentives can have in propelling new business.

When he pursued a downtown Sarasota location for Mattison’s Forty-One in December 2002, a Sarasota downtown partnership association pitched in.

Mattison said he received several months of free rent while build out of the restaurant was completed and paid a reduced rent rate during the first year.

“It really made a big difference, the ability to not be strapped with added expenses in the process of building,” Mattison said.

Joe McDonald, owner of Fisherman Joe’s, 436 12th St. W., said he welcomes the idea of trying to bring more customers downtown.

“We all need them,” McDonald said.

But he wondered why and how only one restaurant was selected for the incentives, and if others follow would each of them receive $250,000 in incentives, too.

On Friday, Allen and Robinson detailed the negotiations that led to the deal. Robinson took the lead for the DDA after Executive Director Mike Kennedy announced he would be leaving the agency.

Allen brought the idea of an incentive package for Ezra Cafe to Robinson and City Clerk Carl Callahan in late November. Talks on the parameters of the incentives continued until this past week, when a tentative agreement was reached.

The city included the “burn-out” clause that would require the restaurant to reimburse the DDA on a sliding scale if it leaves the location before the end of four years.

“At the outset, I wanted to make sure whatever city money was involved that there were assurances that it was secure,” Robinson said.

DDA funds come from tax increment financing in which tax revenues from increases in property value are deposited for use in Community Redevelopment Areas. Any funds received from a tax increment financing area must be used for specific redevelopment purposes within the targeted area.

Ezra Cafe employs 26 people at its 4,400-square-foot location at 5629 Manatee Ave. W., Eason said. The new cafe plans to offer lunch and dinner menus, a take-out service and catering business.

The SunTrust Building is for sale at $11.75 million, but Allen said his group has listed it mainly to gauge the market value.

-- Staff Writers Grace Gagliano and Vin Mannix contributed to this report.

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