West End Business Owner to Cincinnati City Council: 'It's Emotional for Me Right Now'

Monica Williams says she wants her restaurant, Just Cookin', to stay in the West End after having to move for FC Cincinnati's coming stadium. Can Cincinnati City Council help?

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click to enlarge Monica Williams, center, sits with supporters at Cincinnati City Council's Budget and Finance Committee - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Monica Williams, center, sits with supporters at Cincinnati City Council's Budget and Finance Committee

The proprietor of a restaurant that had to move to make way for FC Cincinnati's coming soccer stadium says she's out of work due to the fact she can't find a new place for her business. Now, she wants help.

Monica Williams, along with a half-dozen supporters, came to Cincinnati City Council's Budget and Finance Committee meeting Jan. 14 to tell elected officials she's still looking for a new location and struggling to find other employment for herself and her seven former employees in the meantime.

Williams received $20,000 in relocation assistance from the team when she had to leave the location she rented on West 15th Street in the State Theater late last year. But she says that's not nearly enough. Build-out for some other locations she has looked at will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to written estimates Williams has received from contractors. She's hoping for more help in the form of donations, city aid, more assistance from the team, or from other sources.

In the meantime, she's interviewing for other jobs at places like LaRosa's Pizzeria.

"My livelihood is at an all-time threat the longer I stay unemployed," Williams told council, fighting back tears. "It's emotional for me right now, because I used my own money to start my business. Never once have I had to ask for help. I don't like asking people for help. Where do you go? This situation could easily be over with."

Williams asked council members if the city is hiring and whether her former employees might be able to fill those positions.

"All of us want to figure out a way to get this business back up and running," council member Chris Seelbach said. "The first step would be understanding exactly what that will take."

CityBeat first reported on Just Cookin's situation — and that of two other businesses and one tenant in the building — in June. The State Theater is still standing, but is slated for demolition soon. All businesses and the building's sole resident have left.

Glenn Watson used to work for Just Cookin'.

"I've seen it grown from nothing to something," he says. "I've lived in the West End my whole life, and I've seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood just from having Just Cookin' there. I just want her to continue to grow. She needs a better chance as far as Just Cookin'... a better opportunity."

FC Cincinnati last month offered Williams additional help relocating to a facility on Court Street downtown once occupied by a restaurant called Cuban Pete's. But Williams says the space may be too small, has problems with parking and may not draw her clientele, most of whom live in the West End. That's where Williams, a West End native, would like to stay, she says.

"It's not just finances, it's also geography," council member P.G. Sittenfeld said. "One of the things that FCC has put on the table was the Court Street location and the first two years of rent. But Monica is from the West End, has built her customer base in the West End, has relationships in the West End. Where we left things is there either needs to be a ready-to-go space in the West End or a financial gap that is bridged to make a space ready to go."

Former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, hired by FC Cincinnati to do community engagement, says the team is working to find a solution for Williams. That has involved taking Williams to "five or six" locations in and outside the West End, and, now, offering to cover two years' worth of rent at a new location.

But there are still complications. One location on Linn Street Williams looked at needed between $200,000 and $400,000 in build out. And there are finite options in the neighborhood, Mallory says.

The impasse could have an impact on two key votes council has coming up involving the stadium.

Council must approve zoning variances and the conveyance of city-owned land currently containing part of Central Avenue and a portion of the Cincinnati Police Department's parking lot to the team so the stadium can be constructed. The city wants FCC to pay the appraised value for the land — roughly $1.6 million. The team, however, doesn't want to pay that amount.

"The other reality is that there are two mission-critical votes relative to the totality of the (stadium) project coming up soon," Sittenfeld said to Williams. "I know different people up here are very interested in your situation as those votes approach."

Other council members were more direct in their assessment of the situation.

"Going forward, if this issue is not resolved, FCC is going to have a hard time getting a positive vote out of me," council member Wendell Young said of Williams' situation and the upcoming votes.

A few council members briefly discussed a deal allegedly floated by the team: more help for Williams' business if the city land deal is approved by council, though other council members deny knowledge about the claim. CityBeat has reached out to FCC for comment about those assertions and will update this story accordingly.

"The fact that FC Cincinnati would use the success or failure of a small, minority owned business as a negotiating tool is disgusting," Seelbach said.

Council member Greg Landsman said there are some possible short-term solutions on the table as parties untangle the issues around finding a permanent home for Just Cookin'.

The city could help Just Cookin' with a food truck, Landsman has suggested. Williams said that she has explored partnering with another cook, a member of FCC's design team Elevar, on a food truck, but that the truck would cost $60,000 and that the arrangement seemed like it could be too complicated. Landsman suggested potentially renting a truck instead.

"Even if they find a location, this could drag on seven, eight or nine months," Landsman said. "It seems to me we should be able to help you do both — find short-term and long-term solutions."

Williams, meanwhile, is hoping to find a way to get back into business.

"All the work I've done for the past six years has been jeopardized," she says. "I want to stay in the West End because our work inspires the youth. It brings jobs to the West End. I'm a native of the West End, born and raised. I want to give people the opportunity to see someone hustle in a positive way, see someone start a business from the ground up. It shows the youth that they too can do the same thing, with hard work and dedication."

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