Last Stand at The Banks

The only minority-owned business in Cincinnati’s prized riverfront development is on its way out

click to enlarge Mahogany's owner Liz Rogers announces her restaurant's pending move at the new conference Sept. 9.
Mahogany's owner Liz Rogers announces her restaurant's pending move at the new conference Sept. 9.

T

he long, often difficult saga of the only black-owned business at The Banks appears to be coming to an end. Mahogany’s owner Liz Rogers announced Sept. 9 that the upscale Southern restaurant will move from the city’s prized riverfront development.

“We find that we are in the midst of a climate that is not conducive to successfully executing our business model here at The Banks,” Rogers said during a brief news conference inside the restaurant. “We have determined that our restaurant model is not a fit for The Banks development and are interested in relocating.” 

Rogers said the challenges Mahogany’s has faced have been blown out of proportion by the media, scaring away customers and investors.

Mahogany’s was notified Sept. 3 by its landlord NIC Riverbanks One that, barring action from the city, it would need to leave The Banks by Friday, Sept. 12. The eviction notice was just the latest in a long line of struggles with rent, state sales taxes and loans for the restaurant. Mahogany’s critics say it’s time to pull the plug on the business, which the city recruited and has supported to this point. But the restaurant’s supporters say more than just taxpayer money is at stake and that the project symbolizes the city’s diversity.

Rogers and her supporters say she’s never been given a fair chance. Political machinations, The Banks’ slow start and high levels of publicity around struggles many other businesses also go through have impeded the restaurant’s success, they say.

“The way we’re treating Mahogany’s and Liz is really tainting the progress the city of Cincinnati is trying to make,” said Pastor T.Z. Smith of Corinthian Baptist Church in Avondale during the news conference. Smith said Rogers’ struggles have been no different than those many businesses go through but that she received much more scrutiny from the media and the city.

“I feel like I’m at war, like I’ve been deployed to Iraq,” Rogers said in March about the controversy swirling around the restaurant.

But others, including those responsible for leasing Mahogany’s spot at The Banks, say the restaurant has had plenty of chances. And a run-in with the state over sales taxes that left the restaurant closed for four days last month was the final straw. Mahogany’s settled up with the state and was open for business shortly after, but by that point, the restaurant’s detractors say, it was already too late.

Tracy Schwegmann, who represents The Banks’ leasing agent, sent a letter to Rogers after the sales tax revelation letting her know The Banks wanted her out.

Her landlord and the city had done “everything reasonably possible to make this lease a success,” Schwegmann wrote, “but the time has come to turn the page on this matter.”

One of the Cincinnati’s biggest, most belabored efforts, The Banks has been a decade-long work in progress. The city began recruiting Rogers to open Mahogany’s at The Banks in 2011. The administration at the time offered nearly $700,000 in grants and a $300,000 loan to get the restaurant off the ground. Back then, Rogers was running Mahogany’s in Hamilton, a smaller restaurant that experienced more success.

Rogers was facing some financial struggles even then, including nearly $50,000 in unpaid property taxes on a previous business. Despite Rogers’ rocky financial situation, the city moved forward with The Banks deal and the restaurant opened in July 2012, just in time for the Macy’s Music Festival.

But the money woes only intensified. Rogers’ rent at The Banks has been more than $7,000 a month. On top of that, she must pay $3,000 a month on the city’s loan. She quickly fell behind. In March, less than two years after opening, Rogers was behind more than $65,000 in back rent. She also owed more than $20,000 in back payments on her loan from the city.

Rogers has said that last year’s brutal winter and slow progress on The Banks have meant fewer customers than expected. She has said an expected hotel hasn’t materialized and there are fewer residents living in The Banks than she’d hoped.

Rogers offers other reasons things haven’t gone well. She said continuing struggles to pay her landlord came after someone close to Mahogany’s embezzled $80,000 from the restaurant last year. Police investigated this claim but could not prove any money was taken. She also blames an unnamed source in City Hall who she says is doing everything possible to get Mahogany’s closed.

By April this year, Rogers was able to get current on her rent, narrowly avoiding eviction. The city has been patient with her loan repayments, buying Mahogany’s some breathing room. And for a while, things seemed to have turned a corner, with Rogers bringing in new management, including former Maisonette manager Mike Comisar. But the restaurant again missed rent payments for August and September, and the four-day shutdown last month was the breaking point for its landlord.

Rogers has indicated she will keep Mahogany’s open at The Banks as long as she can, or at least until a relocation strategy is in place. A representative for 3CDC confirmed that Rogers met with the development group Sept. 5 about possibly renting space in Over-the-Rhine, though the group said the meeting was preliminary and that Mahogany’s may or may not be a good fit for their properties, which are mostly small spaces.

The restaurant’s closure could leave taxpayers on the hook. Rogers put up her Hamilton restaurant as collateral for the city loan but closed the location a year and a half ago to focus on The Banks. The city also owns the restaurant’s fixtures and furniture, but Rogers’ debt is significant. She made the first seven loan payments on time after opening but has made few since then and still owes more than $250,000 on the loan.

In the past, the city has stepped in to help the restaurant. City officials have said they’re formulating a response to the situation. But some on Cincinnati City Council have signaled they’re not in a mood to be forgiving.

“I think we’ve done our part,” Vice Mayor David Mann told Channel 9 last week. “When we put public money on the line, we need to be pretty brutal about analyzing the business plans.” ©

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