• John McGary, Woodford Sun Staff

Progress on Versailles Center deals slow, steady

NO PROGRESS? The old Versailles Center today looks much like it did in September of 2014, when this photo was taken from the site where developers want to build a Holiday Inn Express and Suites. (File photo by John McGary)

Near the end of the July 19 Versailles City Council meeting, Woodford Economic Development Authority (EDA) Chairman John Soper was asked why nothing was happening at the old Versailles Center property. Soper, who has a contract with the city of Versailles to provide economic development services and the unpaid position with the EDA, showed his frustration. "I'll just be very blunt. The owners, Versailles Land Group, cannot get the (deed) restrictions released from McDonald's. They've not been successful in doing that. That has held them up. They're not in position to go out and try to get new contracts. "You know, it's been a year - more than a year - and we should have had construction plans on that property. It should have been opened up to Kroger. It's not. I don't know what the answer is, other than to maybe try to intervene some way and get McDonald's to cooperate with Versailles Land Group to release those restrictions . that really limit what that property can do," Soper said. Last August, Versailles Land Group, LLC, purchased the 12-acre site for $1.08 million from a subsidiary of PBI Bank. The property is off the U.S. 60 Bypass and accessible from Crossfield Drive, and once hosted businesses ranging from Sweet Potatoes restaurant to Radio Shack. A 1983 deed restriction that helped bring McDonald's to the Versailles Center gives the McDonald's Corporation and Joe Graviss, the owner of its Versailles restaurant, the ability to veto another restaurant there: "Further lessor does hereby covenant that it will not engage in or grant a lease to any person to engage in a restaurant of any type within a radius of two miles from the premises covered by this lease." Graviss said Soper's characterization to the council and the impression it left with council members was not based on all the facts. "It was not accurately reported at the meeting in any way, shape and form," Graviss said. Graviss said neither he nor McDonald's is putting up roadblocks to keep a restaurant from opening in the Versailles Center. "Absolutely not. We're working very well with Eli Mashni, the broker, their attorneys. We've gotten along extremely well. We've got a great line of communication open in trying to ease these restrictions that would allow for a better development for the Versailles Land Group," Graviss said. Graviss said he gave two previous restaurants there, Stoney's and Sweet Potatoes, a pass on the deed restriction. "I chose to not bring those violations to the McDonald's Corporation's attention. I wasn't worried about it. I knew Stoney, he was a good guy, it wasn't really hurting us that bad. Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald's) said, 'If you sell water, you're competition to McDonald's, and there's a lot of truth to that. But I am more interested in the greater good and it didn't bother me that much that they (Stoney's and Sweet Potatoes) were there ..." Graviss said. "Had I (informed McDonald's), the McDonald's Corporation would have had every legal right to shut those restaurants down in violation of the lease." Graviss said after he learned Mashni's group was considering buying the Versailles Center property, Mashni called him to discuss the deed restriction. "I was like, 'Hallelujah, I've finally got somebody thinking about coming to the table. Let's roll,'" Graviss said. Graviss said when he realized the Versailles Land Group was a legitimate buyer, he and the McDonald's Corporation entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with them. The next step was a contract between the parties, with the McDonald's Corporation taking the first stab at it. "The first draft of . the contract was close to 40 pages," Graviss said. "I tried to warn everybody, 'The MOU was easy, the contract's going to be tough. Understand that it's going to be a back-and-forth.'" Graviss said he'd gone through a similar proceeding with Southland Christian Church in an ultimately successful process. "Same exact thing has happened at the Versailles Center. First draft of the contract, McDonald's had the kitchen sink in there, Versailles Land Group said, 'You can only have the pots and pans,' and they rewrote the contract and sent it back and McDonald's said, 'OK, we can go along with this, we can go along with that, we can't take this, how about we change it to that,' and we're down from 10 or 15 major issues and changes to maybe two or three or four right now," Graviss said. "We're really close to settling on that final number, and I think it'll be days or weeks and we'll have a signed deal," Graviss said. Mashni said Versailles Land Group has platted the property into two development plans. ". We're shooting to put the road (between the Versailles Center and Kroger) in over the next month, and hopefully we can transfer title soon on the hotel. But the problem is we are working with the McDonald's Corporation and Joe to come up with an agreeable plan on this restaurant restriction, and we're working on that, and it's not going as fast as I'd like. There've been some delays on the McDonald's end, and they're a huge corporation, and they don't even know where Versailles is. So it is taking some time, but it is progressing," Mashni said. Asked whether McDonald's or Graviss were dragging their feet on the matter, Mashni said, "I think it's just a big corporation, and this is how they handle these types of situations. I don't think, per se, they're trying to drag their feet. I just think it's an existing store (Graviss's McDonald's), it's not a new development, so . it hasn't gone as fast as anyone would like it to go." Mashni and Graviss acknowledged an offer by the Versailles Land Group to give the McDonald's Corporation a half-acre of land - which Soper said was worth about $300,000 - in return for dropping the deed restriction. Graviss said the McDonald's Corporation wanted a few more feet on two sides of his restaurant to meet their minimum standard of a double or side-by-side drive-through and allow for a different interior and exterior. "We started the process, like, five months ago. I would have hoped it would have already been signed by now, but I think we're close. It would be nice to have it 100 percent done, but we're working on it," Mashni said. "I'm dealing with attorneys in Oakbrook, Ill., (McDonald's Corporation headquarters) that probably couldn't find Versailles on a map and probably have a whole lot bigger fish to fry than the Versailles Center. And I have been an extremely squeaky wheel and very persistent with my partners in the McDonald's Corporation to keep this process moving," Graviss said. "It's a minor miracle that we're as far along as we are and I'm pleased that we're nearing completion." Hotel slowdown? In March, officials from H&W Management, the firm planning to build a Holiday Inn Express and Suites on the back three acres of the Versailles Center, spoke at a Versailles City Council meeting. Jeff Yeary and Don Howard discussed the four-story, 81-room hotel, which would include an indoor swimming pool, exercise room and small conference room - but no restaurant. They told the council that, pending approval from the Versailles-Midway-Woodford County Planning Commission and private parties, construction could begin this fall, with the hotel opening in the fall of 2017. Saturday, Yeary left a message with The Sun saying that the best-case scenario now involves groundbreaking next April and the hotel opening in March or April of 2018. "We've got to get plans approved through the city, plans approved through the brand, which is the biggest issue. The city definitely wants a hotel there and is trying to help out," Yeary said. "We are still in our due diligence period as far as finally determining what's going to happen. We are very excited about Versailles and want to be there very much." At the July 21 city council meeting, council member Carl Ellis asked Soper if the hotel developers had planned on having a restaurant on the property before they opened. Soper responded, "Yeah, I think so, and that may be why they postponed for - not to break ground until next year. I don't know. I'm disappointed that we don't have the hotel started by now." "So am I," said Ellis. Council member Ann Miller added, "They have held that restriction now for 30 years. So I think it's worn out its welcome, frankly." In a follow-up interview, Yeary told The Sun that his firm would love to see a sit-down restaurant at the Versailles Center. Asked whether they'd still build the hotel if they had reason to believe there wouldn't be one, Yeary said, "We have not come to that conclusion on which way to go." Mashni said if the three sides can't reach an agreement on the deed restriction, Versailles Land Group has an alternate plan, which was "not as nice" as the original. Asked whether he'd reveal details of that plan, Mashni declined, saying, "We'd like to get the first deal done."

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