There's no going back now. In deciding whether to grant Mozella McLaughlin $175,000 in neighborhood revitalization funds to renovate her building at 2520 Fayetteville St., Durham city officials have found themselves in the very predicament they were trying to avoid—being mired in a tenuous dispute between a landlord and her tenant.
Giving the money to McLaughlin could squeeze out her tenant Bruce Bridges and The Know Book Store, a local institution with a dedicated following. And on Monday night, when the City Council appeared poised to vote on the issue, it instead faced more than an hour of public protest. City Council postponed the vote until Oct. 5.
McLaughlin, a 92-year-old former teacher nicknamed Mok'e, wants to create Mok'e Jazz & Cultural Center. The building would house a restaurant and two retail spaces, one possibly being a smaller incarnation of The Know Book Store. But so far, Bridges isn't 100 percent on board with the plan.
Opponents of McLaughlin's proposal say she would be spending tax dollars and $400,000 in additional borrowed money to re-create what has existed there for 18 years: a center for learning and political discourse, delectable food and the spontaneous creation of music at The Know's famous Friday night jazz jam sessions.
"A lot of people are making the comment that we're trying to do exactly what Mr. Bridges is doing. That's not true," said Gwendolyn McLaughlin Bookman, Mozella McLaughlin's daughter. "That's like saying if you have a grocery store, you can't have another one."
Supporters of The Know this week urged the City Council to help the small business remain open or mediate the conflict between landlord and tenant. In the days before Monday's scheduled vote, some council members held meetings with McLaughlin and Bridges. Bridges has even asked the council to delay the grant to allow him more time to find another space and to reimburse him for the business he'll lose if he's forced to close before he finds a new storefront. Bridges told the City Council this week that he has tried to find his own building, in the hopes he could apply for his own city grant. But he has been unable to find a suitable, affordable space.
Negotiations between McLaughlin and Bridges are likely to continue.
What's at stake is more than a business owner's dream or $175,000 in taxpayer money. If city officials become too involved in negotiating a resolution, they risk setting a sticky precedent for future landlord-tenant disputes. The council also could spend time and money backing a project that could fail once McLaughlin looks to banks for what appears to many as a risky loan.
According to an analysis from the city's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, the building's tax value—after $575,000 in renovations—would be only an estimated $471,000.
But the money the finished project would generate would offset that debt, said Kevin Dick, director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. That projection is based on the assumption that the owner could charge $13 per square foot for tenants in her new two-story building.
Dick assured the council that finding a bank to fund the project would not be a problem. But Mayor Bill Bell took issue with Dick's projections, as did Councilman Eugene Brown.
"I don't think this project makes good economic sense," Brown said. "We're about to put the city's stamp of approval on a project that has no named tenants."
Whether the city participates, McLaughlin's family says she is determined to transform the aging store.
McLaughlin's son, William, erected the building in the 1970s for his pharmacy, Bookman said. McLaughlin rented it to Bridges in 1991, and Bridges split the 3,000 square feet into three spaces: a bookstore, a restaurant and a kitchen.
The walls and linoleum floors are dingy, and seating at The Know restaurant is limited. But the crackling deep fryer and strains of "Misty Blue" by Dorothy Moore still invite in lunch and dinner crowds during the week.
It's a place that minister, blogger and activist Paul Scott says he started frequenting more than 20 years ago. "I knew about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King," Scott said. "But it was The Know Book Store that taught me who I was."
The new jazz and cultural center would boast a rooftop garden café and be regarded as a memorial to McLaughlin, who has lived off Fayetteville Street since the 1940s, Bookman said.
Though McLaughlin included The Know in her plans, Bridges is unsatisfied with the space she has carved out for him.
Instead of the sprawling 1,700-square-foot bookstore he now runs, he would have a mere 400 square feet for thousands of titles, from Confronting the Color Crisis in the Afrikan Diaspora to classics such as Ethan Frome.
And Bridges would lose his restaurant, where he serves catfish and collard greens and makes his profit. A new restaurant, possibly Dillard's Bar-B-Que, run by McLaughlin's relatives, would serve food in the new space, Bookman said.
Bookman said Bridges would benefit from the new setup. He could still hold jazz night and charge a higher cover because of the nicer, larger space, she said. He could buy food from the restaurant at wholesale and then resell it, Bookman said. Bridges isn't sold on the idea.
In a last-ditch effort to reach a compromise, Bridges and McLaughlin met over the weekend in a negotiation that went into the early morning.
"They told me I could have the whole thing," Bridges said. "But prices would be so far out of what I could pay. The rent would be too high."
Legally, McLaughlin, can do as she wishes with her rental property. Since Bridges lacks a lease on the property, McLaughlin technically only has to give him 30 days to vacate.
"This project will go forward," Bookman said. "This project is my mother's legacy."