Broke Bishop Street merchants boycott 'obscene' business development fees, get visit from bailiffs

The City of Montreal sent bailiffs to collect business development fees from Bishop Street merchants as they struggled with the impact of a 3 ½ year-long construction project. The fees were for Destination Centre-Ville, who merchants say did nothing to help them.

Destination Centre-Ville says helping businesses affected by construction 'not in their mission or mandate'

Gaby Najjar, left, the former owner of Kafein and Mike Cloghesy of the now-bankrupt Mesa 14 say Destination Centre-Ville did nothing to help their businesses weather a 3 ½ year construction project on Bishop Street. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

As construction outside his restaurant dragged on and business dried up, Mike Cloghesy tried to keep up with his bills —but one unpaid invoice was met with an especially aggressive response.

"It was literally bailiffs coming to seize our business because of refusal to pay Destination Centre-Ville fees," said Cloghesy.

The owner of Mesa 14 had been paying fees to the commercial development entity for years, but as his Mexican restaurant slid into bankruptcy, he refused out of principle.

"They had known about this construction at least six months before we did, and yet they didn't even notify and warn us," Cloghesy said.

"I found it obscene that we had to pay this."

Restaurant Ferrari owner Elio Schiavi got this notice for unpaid Destination Centre-Ville fees (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Restaurant Ferrari's owner, Elio Schiavi, also initially refused to pay his Destination Centre-Ville bill.  He says after several warnings, a bailiff showed up at his door too.

"I had to pay otherwise they were going to seize something from the restaurant," Schiavi said, like chairs and tables.

He says he eventually took out his credit card and paid the $720.38 he owed.

Non-profit gets over $3.5M annually

Destination Centre-Ville is a non-profit organization that runs events such as Montreal's Santa Claus parade and beautification initiatives such as cleaning brigades to spruce up commercial streets.

It gets the bulk of its annual budget from a city-administered levy on all businesses in a designated area, managed by a Société de développement commercial (SDC).

Its mission is to "promote, develop and showcase the territory." 
The Destination Centre-Ville SDC covers 8,000 businesses located between Atwater Avenue and Saint-Antoine, Saint-Urbain and Sherbrooke streets. (Destination Centre-Ville)

"They should have been there with us since day one," said Gaby Najjar, who turned his café-bar Kafein over to his landlord after 16 years in business because of unpaid rent.

Najjar says Destination Centre-Ville could have tried to draw customers to the beleaguered stretch by running promotions or improving the street's appearance.

"This is exactly the opportunity that they could have made a difference," he said.

"They flat-out failed to do what they should be doing."

STM proposal rebuffed

The STM met with Destination Centre-Ville in January 2016, and again that October, to discuss their 3 ½ year-long project to replace a Metro ventilation station on Bishop.

Montreal's public transit authority wanted to know if the organization could find ways to help soften the blow to merchants through events, contests or other types of marketing.

Destination Centre-Ville declined their request.

Now, not even halfway into the marathon construction project, the east side of Bishop between Ste-Catherine Street and de Maisonneuve Boulevard is a commercial ghost town.

'Not part of their mission or mandate'

In an email response to CBC News, Destination Centre-Ville executive director, André Poulin, said although they sympathize with the Bishop Street merchants, helping  businesses affected by construction is "not part of their mission or mandate."

The head of Destination Centre-Ville, André Poulin, said in an email statement to CBC News that it's not part of the non-profit organization's mandate to help businesses beleaguered by construction. (Radio-Canada)

Poulin said the organization represents some 8,000 businesses over a large territory who regularly have to deal with construction woes.

He said they received assurances from the STM that store owners would be notified about the construction on Bishop, and that it's the responsibility of those doing construction work to mitigate its effects, not Destination Centre-Ville.

Plante administration 'surprised'

The City of Montreal doesn't agree though.

"Our administration has recently met with Bishop Street merchants. We were surprised to hear that they had received no help from their SDC [Destination Centre-Ville]," said Robert Beaudry the executive committee member responsible for economic development.

Beaudry says SDCs like Destination Centre-Ville play a key role in mitigating the effects of construction work and pointed to recent examples on Laurier Street west and Plaza St-Hubert.

"Merchants should be able to receive appropriate help in times of need," he said.

Organization sitting on large surplus

Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante mentioned Destination Centre-Ville when she met with Bishop Street merchants during last year's municipal election campaign, said Cloghesy.

"She said that there was a lot of money in the Destination Centre-Ville accounts," he said.

According to its most recent financial statements published in 2016, the organization has nearly $3 million in unallocated assets and contingency funds thanks to years of running surpluses.

Poulin says the money is being banked for major projects which will be unveiled soon.

He also said all members are entitled to attend their annual meeting to vote on the organization's priorities.

But Najjar says Destination Centre-Villle should have shown more initiative on Bishop Street.

"It's just sad for us," said Najjar.

"This was all money that was crucial to our survival and now it's too late."