By Jane Smith
Boynton Beach has another white knight charged with a big task of helping to jump-start its downtown.
This time, restaurant broker Tom Prakas has exclusive listings on two historic properties: the Ruth Jones cottage and the Oscar Magnuson house. Both buildings sit on East Ocean Avenue. His firm received the nod from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency board in mid-November.
Vivian Brooks, the CRA’s executive director, contacted Prakas. “He is often mentioned in the media as the go-to person for restaurants. He has a whole office of people who do that,” she said.
Prakas is bullish on downtown Boynton Beach and his ability to find restaurant tenants and buyers. For the Ruth Jones Cottage, which used to be The Little House café, he planned to bring the CRA a list of potential tenants by Christmas.
Among the possible renters: a stone oven pizza place, a coffee and dessert eatery or a sandwich and craft brew tavern.
“The restaurant market is hot right now and it’s hard to find locations,” Prakas said. “The economy is good right now, people are eating out more.” His brokerage placed 30 of the dozens of restaurants on trendy Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, he said.
If the CRA board accepts his renter for the cottage, Prakas’ commission will be equal to 5 percent of the base lease rental amount for the full lease term, or $5,000, whichever is greater.
CRA board member Joe Casello voted against the contract because it is geared to a restaurant or bar, which he thinks is too restrictive.
Brooks cautioned the board: “We don’t want another failure.”
CRA board member David Merker, who voted against both contracts, wanted to delay the discussion until Prakas could attend to answer questions.
Brooks reminded the board: “The longer we wait, the longer these properties sit vacant.”
If the CRA board accepts Prakas’ buyer for the Magnuson house, he will receive 10 percent of the sales price. The buyer/renter of that house will receive $200,000 from the CRA to build it out, plus other grants available from the CRA, Brooks said.
Brooks expects the CRA board to have a list of potential renters and/or buyers to discuss at its February meeting. She said Steve Mossini, a restaurant broker in Prakas’ office, is working on the deals.
The CRA had paid $850,000 in 2007 for the 1,736-square-foot Oscar Magnuson house at 211 E. Ocean Ave. It was built about 1910 by Swedish immigrant and farmer Oscar Sten Magnuson. His wife, Eunice Benson Magnuson, was one of the first town clerks. Its current tax value is $158,895, according to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser.
For the cottage, Prakas is looking to find renters paying about $20 a square foot, plus maintenance fees and insurance premiums. He will offer some financial incentives, but it won’t be a year of free rent as the CRA gave to Chrissy Benoit when she was recruited to open a restaurant similar to her Havana Hideout in Lake Worth.
The CRA had spent nearly $800,000 to buy, move, renovate and outfit the 786-square-foot cottage. Benoit loved its Dade County pine interior and that’s why she did not install a stove with a hood. She cooked her food using convection ovens and an induction cooktop.
After the first year, Benoit’s rent went up to $5 a square foot, but she still could not make it work. “The CRA has a vision of what they want Boynton to be. There’s a disconnect with what the residents want,” she said. The still-developing downtown did not provide enough foot traffic for her café, she said.
Benoit also had problems finding reliable staff and received a few bad reviews on Yelp, a crowd-sourced review site. “Something more needed to happen, or maybe I needed to change my menu,” she said after closing her restaurant in September.
Mary Sisoain, who operates Rudy’s Stand Up Saloon in Lake Worth, wanted a bigger location and offered to take over Benoit’s lease, which the CRA board did not consider. Rudy’s serves wine and beer, has live music and a crockpot of free food for customers. “She (Benoit) was selling California-type food and craft beers only — which is not for South Florida,” Sisoian said. “You need to sell Budweiser, too. Hurricane Alley does well there; it’s just a little burger joint.”
Nearby cities doing better
The city’s downtown core, part of the CRA’s 1,650 acres, seems frozen in time while downtowns to the north and south are thriving.
“Few parcels are ready to be developed,” said Brooks, who has been with the agency for nine years but only three years as the executive director. “There were some political issues in the past. We are working to change the image and perception of the city.”
To shift that image in a positive way, the effort has to be consistent and constant. “Delray’s downtown took 20 years to change,” Brooks said.
Two gallery owners could not wait. They recently closed their shops to open on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, part of that city’s CRA.
Babs Lentz, who operates the Art-Sea Living gallery, said she has the same amount of space and did not receive incentives to move into Delray Beach. She might apply for a sign grant from the CRA or rent subsidy of $500 per month because she had to hire staff. She now runs evening classes because “there is night-life here,” said Lentz, who had been in Boynton Beach for 13 years.
Debbie Brookes, who owns Beachcomber Art, is more effusive.
“It was a great financial move, the best thing I ever did,” said Brookes, who moved in two months ago. She says her sales are up 300 percent. She rented a store with more space and off-street parking for customers who bring in such big pieces as urns and chandeliers for her to customize.
But artist Rolando Chang Barrero is keeping his studio on Industrial Avenue, part of the Boynton CRA. He recently opened a fine arts gallery on Lucerne Avenue in Lake Worth.
“Boynton Beach is just in its infancy,” said Barrero, who also runs its art district. Because it is so young, he enjoys creating its policies regarding art.
The city has an Avenue of the Arts featuring outdoor exhibits in the CRA, said Debby Coles-Dobay, public art manager. Every year, the sculptures change. This year, as a run-up to the 2015 International Kinetic Art Exhibit and Symposium in February, the outdoor art works move by wind, light or touch.
She thinks cultural tourism will benefit Boynton Beach by attracting corporations to the area. “It helps in everyday life as an inspiration,” she said. “And it even helps youth to do the right thing.”
By Jane Smith