Owners of the Keller’s IGA store, a longtime anchor of the Gaslight District on the Ludlow Avenue business strip that was forced to close its doors earlier this month, still are optimistic that they can reopen soon but readily admit there are too many obstacles in the way to “breathe easy” just yet.
Forced to close on Jan. 6 when state tax department officials pulled its vendor’s license for failure to pay nearly $190,000 in back taxes, the store has remained shuttered while its owners, John Vierling and Charles Dugger, work to settle their debt.
“As we speak, we’ve got a group up in Columbus talking to (Ohio Attorney General) Mike DeWine, trying to get us some breathing room and allow us to set up some sort of payment plan and we’ve got various groups working locally to help us get our feet under us again,” Vierling says. “There are some positive things that, if they line up, we’ll be able to breathe a little easier.”
“But it’s not a done deal yet,” Vierling adds. “We still have a lot of obstacles to clear.”
Citing the poor economy and maintenance issues with the old building, Vierling concedes he and Dugger fell behind on the taxes in 2010. Rather than bankrupt the store by paying the taxes in full, they chose to keep the store operating while they worked on a payment plan with the Ohio Attorney General’s office.
The pair already had made a $56,000 payment to the state in December and agreed on a plan to pay off the rest within six months, when the state tax commission blindsided them with a separate ultimatum: Pay the full amount immediately or close your doors.
When he and Dugger couldn’t pay the balance by Jan. 1, the state pulled their vendor’s license.
“They did an end-around, not consulting the attorney general’s office,” says Vierling, who says outgoing tax department officials cited a rule — businesses two months behind on taxes were to be treated as “habitual offenders” and ordered to pay immediately — that was not previously enforced.
“We’ve never said we’re not going to pay what we owe,” he adds. “As a matter of fact, we already had a payment plan in place and had started paying. I don’t think we’ll ever understand why they acted as they did.”
Ohio Department of Taxation officials don’t comment on specific cases, they said, but say as a matter of course businesses that lose their licenses because of back taxes must make full repayment before their license will be restored.
Vierling and Dugger originally hoped to obtain loans to pay the back taxes and reopen the store within a few days, but were unable to secure financing. Since then, they’ve taken to lobbying state officials to get back on their feet.
Along with the group meeting with DeWine this week, Vierling says the store has had an outpouring of support from the community. City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. has written state officials pleading its case, while local groups also have been working tirelessly toward that end.
One of those groups, Clifton Town Meeting, has been leading the charge.
“We got pulled into it almost immediately,” says Pete Schneider, one of the group’s trustees. “People were upset, asking ‘What can CTM do?’ Unfortunately, we’re not in the business of buying a business or funding something like a bailout or telling someone how to run their business.”
The group has been working to craft some sort of deal to reopen the store, though, Schneider adds.
“Our main focus has been facilitation and hand-holding, making sure (owners) are talking to the right people who can help them get the store reopened,” he says. “We’ve put together talking points, pointing out the potential for creating a negative business environment in the neighborhood if the store isn’t reopened and the negative impact on residents, and getting that into the hands of the city, the economic development folks and state officials.”
State Sen. Eric Kearney, who represents the Clifton neighborhood in Columbus, has been working on the store’s behalf, aides say. Other local officials, like Dohoney, have stepped in as well, but Vierling admits a lot hinges on help from DeWine’s office to broker a settlement.
As the one-month anniversary of the closing nears, the clock is ticking on Keller’s IGA.
“Obviously, the state’s going to need some money before they let us reopen,” Vierling says, “and every day that passes we lose more perishable items that we’ll have to restock before we can open our doors.”
If a deal was reached immediately, Vierling estimates he and Dugger would have to invest $50,000 in new stock on top of any payments to the state. They have been looking for investors and, reluctantly, even listened to offers to sell either the building or the business, which Vierling’ grandfather opened 65 years ago.
“That would be brutal,” Vierling says, “but sometimes reality bites you in the butt and even if it’s something you don’t want to do, you might have to. But we’re doing everything we can to reopen the store and reopen it as Keller’s IGA.”
“It’s imperative that we get something moving, whether it’s with John and Charlie, or someone new,” Schneider candidly admits. “We’ve got a population of people in the area, some of them older, that don’t have the transportation to get to other stores. There’s not a direct bus line that goes to the Kroger on Spring Grove or up by campus. There aren’t other options for them.”