Cocoanut Grove, a once-thriving shopping center on Fourth Street N, now resembles a ghost town.
Just two years ago, the strip mall's spaces were packed with tenants including a Greek restaurant, a kitchen remodeling center, a golf store and a home mortgage company. Now all that's left is an empty parking lot and "We Have Moved" signs on storefront windows.
Some of the businesses that once called Cocoanut Grove home say they were essentially forced out of the location by the company that manages the site.
"We were just really confused," said Betsy Guthrie, office manager for Kitchen Center Plus. "It's like everybody just started moving out, and the retail managers weren't telling us much."
Guthrie said Retail Asset Management, the company that supervises the location, decided not to give Kitchen Center Plus a long-term lease.
"That really puzzled us because we had been at Cocoanut Grove since 1990," she said. "In the past we had long-term leases for the property, but they wanted to move us to a month-to-month lease."
In essence, that required Kitchen Center Plus to move out of Cocoanut Grove at the end of August. "We wanted to stay there," Guthrie said, "but with only having a short-term lease, we didn't want to be put into a situation where we would have to leave within 30 days and not have any place to go."
Kitchen Center Plus was the second to last business to move out of Cocoanut Grove. The location became vacant when Athenian Garden, a Greek restaurant, moved out at the end of October.
"It was very inconvenient for us," said Spiro Gogas, owner of Athenian Garden. "Having been there for the past seven years, we were happy where we were. But it's tough now for us in our new location (on Third Street N) in downtown because many of our customers can't find parking."
Gogas said Retail Asset Management purposely forced him out by refusing to extend his lease. "I think they just wanted everybody to leave so that they could sell the place for more or tear it down ... People were really upset about it."
Gogas said he actually had a three-year option to continue his tenancy at Cocoanut Grove, but that Retail Asset Management fought him on technical terms in order to prevent him from exercising that option.
"For me to take the three-year option, I had to send (Retail Asset Management) a letter to tell them I'd like to stay … I sent in the letter, but I never heard back from them, and they eventually fought me on the contract because they said they never got it."
Gogas said he exercised the three-year option in 2004 without a problem. "But when I sent in the letter for 2007, they fought me on whether or not the letter was certified. If it wasn't certified, they could use that as an excuse to say they never got it … eventually they won and I couldn't get the long-term extension."
But, said Paul Cooley, president of Retail Asset Management, the company did nothing wrong. "I didn't tell anybody to leave, we didn't push anybody out," he said.
Cooley acknowledges that the company did make the decision to start offering short-term leases as opposed to multiyear contracts about three years ago. He said this was in response to market demands and the rising price of real estate in that area at the time.
"If you're encumbered by leases that are under rent, you need the flexibility of a month-to-month tenant lease … Cocoanut Grove needed money put into it, and you need to be able to be at market rents," he said. "I can't be committed for the mom and pop shoe store if a national retailer wants to move in."
Cooley said the future of Cocoanut Grove is not certain, but Retail Asset Management is looking to fill the vacant stores with new tenants or potentially rebuild the entire site. He added that, "If somebody is going to go in there and refurbish the location, we're more likely to lease to them."
Cooley said the bitterness previous tenants felt toward Retail Asset Management was not as severe as Gogas suggested. "There weren't that many of them that wanted to stay on," he said.
But another previous Cocoanut Grove tenant, Peter Haggar, owner of Blind and Shutter Gallery, said, "I know for a fact that Paul Cooley is absolutely insane if he says that the people didn't want to stay."
Haggar reported lease negotiation problems with Cooley as well, and said, "There was just a total lack of communication. I was asking them for a five-year extension for over a year, and they just kept saying, 'We'll get back to you.' " Haggar never received a long-term lease, and he would not accept the month-to-month lease Retail Asset Management eventually offered. Blind and Shutter Gallery left Cocoanut Grove in February.
Haggar also alleged that the company tried to charge him for years-old bills in an effort to coerce him out of the site.
"They went back to the first day we moved in 2002, and said, 'Oh, by the way, you owe all these maintenance fees.' They were just trying to push us out the door. Businesses were really disrupted … It shouldn't have been done like this."