The Dickinson City Commission voted 3-2 in favor of buying back property sold to Odyssey Theaters for the purpose of building an eight-screen complex on Second Avenue across from City Hall.
Linda Carlson, deputy administrator for the city, explained the contingency that allowed them to do so during the city commission meeting Tuesday night.
"In '18, the city sold part of the parking lot across from city hall to the Odyssey Theater ... to construct a new theater. For a variety of reasons, the theater construction has not yet started. The original sales agreement included a contingency that allows the city to buy back the property at 90% of the sale price ($90,000) if construction has not started within 18 months. That date has passed."
Odyssey Theaters Vice President Bryan Sieve asked that the company be given an extension to August 2021 due to events outside of their control including an eight-month battle with the U.S. Postal Service and the economic fallout cause by COVID-19. The project had already been delayed more than once since it began in 2018.
"This is the world's worst poker hand that we've ever been delivered," Sieve said. "It's been a very, very challenging chronology of events that has made it very difficult to do."
He described the impact COVID-19 has had on the movie theater industry as "devastating."
"I've never seen this happen ever. It has basically destroyed the industry," Sieve said. "It caused great uncertainty for all of us that are in the movie theater business ... With that kind of uncertainty, it was not prudent to start the project."
Members of the commission were concerned about the company's commitment to the project; many businesses that were promised have come and gone.
They wanted to know if Sieve would commit to picking up and paying the $41,375 for his building permit, which is generally good for a year. He said he would.
The permit, however, has been ready since April 16, 2020.
"They could have picked (it) up, walked in and said, 'We have the permit.' I think that would have changed every commissioner's mind except for one who voted against it originally," said Mayor Scott Decker. "I based my decision upon the time frame that they were allowed to begin construction."
Commissioner Jason Fridrich, a business owner himself, sympathized with the company's COVID-19 plight.
"If there was no COVID-19, if it didn’t take them eight months to deal with the post office in Washington, D.C., then I would be upset and say they’re probably not going to do it, but they’ve had a lot of hoops to jump through and I don’t think this extension is too much to ask," he said.
After the commission heard from Sieve, members of the public participated in a public hearing to determine whether or not the extension he asked for would be granted or the city would invoke the contingency and repurchase the property.
Many of the comments were about the lack of parking caused by a fence that had been erected on the site.
Neal Messer spoke about tenants in a building he leases.
"Several of our leases require access to parking. One of them is one of the federal government agencies," he said. "Obviously with the fencing going up and the parking issue as it is, I received a nasty (message) last week basically that I’ve got 14 days to resolve the issue of parking or else they would be terminating the lease."
A couple of members of the Downtown Dickinson Association, including MB Marsh from Bernie's Esquire Club and Tracy Tooz, owner of Tooz Construction spoke in favor of the theater.
Tooz Consturction has worked with Odyssey on projects before and said that 42 of the 75 parking spaces would be returned to the public once construction is complete, a fact that Sieve confirmed.
Those spaces would be used for construction materials, and Sieve said they could take down the fencing until they're able to move forward with the project.
Commissioner Steiner was not in favor of the theater being built at the chosen location citing lack of space.
"Movie theaters have been a downtown staple for over 100 years ..." Sieve said in rebuttal. "We operate on the hours most of the folks that are complaining here do not. We don’t open until 4 or 5 o’clock in the evening when most of the traffic is out."
When Commissioner Trustem asked Sieve is Odyssey would still be committed to building in Dickinson if the downtown site development ends, Sieve said they would leave the market.
"The cost of trying to find replacement land would exceed the value of - the feasibility of - the project, to be quite honest with you. We've done transactions in other similar towns and quite frankly, the land is almost given to us to do these things anymore," he said.
He qualified the statement by saying that the deal they had agreed to was generous, but that parking fields in Dickinson are too expensive to make such a change feasible.
Commissioner Steiner moved to invoke the contingency and repurchase the parking lot. Commissioner Trustem seconded. Commissioners Fridrich and Nicole Wolla voted against the repurchase. Mayor Decker was the deciding vote, voting in favor of the purchase.
After the commission voted and the commissioners went home, Trustem reflected on her vote.
"After reflecting on the meeting and some of the comments that I received afterwards, I went back to my initial proposal to the commission which was maybe we should consider an extension. That doesn't necessarily have to mean through the end of next August," she said to The Press. " ... The topic was kind of switched right away, and I don't think that that conversation was ever explored, and then we moved forward with Carson Steiner's motion. I think that there's an opportunity to meet in the middle, and I think there are some great ideas and comments out there that hadn't been properly vetted beforehand. I believe in growth and business and diversification, and I'd love to see downtown grow and prosper, but I also think we need to hold people accountable as well."
She wrote a post on social media to her constituents, sharing an email she sent to Carlson about the possibility of another public hearing to revisit the issue.