Sunday, March 22, 2009

How do we save the Abbey Grill

It seems sudden. The International Institute of Culinary Arts, which includes the Abbey Grill and the Great Hall has closed its doors just weeks after finding out that the building is slated for public auction.

Honestly, we should have seen this coming. I've heard complaints over the last few years about the declining state of the service and food, always sure signs of a restaurant in trouble.

When George Karousos purchased the former Central Congregational Church in 1997, I was excited about what this could mean for Fall River. The idea of a culinary arts school seemed just the kind of high profile project that could generate some buzz for Fall River. I had high hopes for Karousos' endeavor and if it didn't instantly revitalize Fall River it did, for a long time, become a place that attracted outside attention. And it saved a piece of Fall River's history that seemed doomed from the wrecking ball.

What went wrong? Maybe it was Mrs. Karousos' passing away that started the school's decline? Perhaps the real estate boom was part of the problem? Mr Karousos purchased the former church for under $150,000 a decade latter it is valued at over a million dollars and the increase in real estate taxes must have been significant. Maybe the building itself is the problem and it's upkeep proved too much to handle. Perhaps it is a combination of all those things and more.

Whatever the reasons, why didn't the city recognize them. Karousos owes the city money in back taxes and money for police details related to the structural problems with the steeple. Why didn't they intervene? The Fall River Office of Economic Development couldn't offer any assistance, or at least refer Karousos to someone who could? Two years ago Senator Joan Menard referred the institute as our adopted treasure. Where's the effort now to save it?

I'm not saying that Fall River or the state should bailout the school but I would think some reasonable efforts would be appropriate for an "adopted treasure". What resources already exist that could have and still be used to help the Institute? Right now the Mayor or his representatives could be sitting down with the school and the bank to try to work out an agreement. Menard, Kerry, Kennedy and the rest could be looking for available funds or loans that would allow the buildings problems to be resolved.

It's shameful if these things don't happen, because the school still represents something exciting in Fall River.

How do we save the Abbey Grill?

The first option has got be to work with Karousos. I've outlined the basics above. The city needs to step in to negotiate more time and offer whatever resources may be available. Meanwhile our elected officials need to work to find what resources are available to assist. However, we can't overlook that part of the Institutes' problems may be Karousos himself.

If that's the case what can we do to secure the buildings preservation? Over a decade ago it was a citizens group that saved the building and allowed Karousos to buy it. However now the building is worth 10 times as much. How could they raise that kind of money? Perhaps we should reach out to Aerosmith! The band filmed parts of the video for the song Cryin' there in 1993. Maybe they could donate some money or mobilize their fan base to assist.

Maybe Fall River's own Emeril Lagasse could be persuaded to help. Certainly if Emeril were to partner with, or purchase the Institute it would generate a great deal of positive press. Emeril's name would add credibility and bring people into the city to dine at the Abbey Grill. Even if Emeril never taught a class his name could mean success. Perhaps Emeril could visit the city a few times a year and do public demonstrations or even film a few episodes of his cooking show from the the cooking school!

Okay maybe those suggestions are far-fetched but hey, anything is worth a try!

If there is anyway to save the Abbey Grill, we better do it soon before we let another piece of Fall River history slip away.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

That would be great if Emeril applied his name (and business prowess) to the failed institution. How feasible is that, though?

A combination of greed, mismanagement and the economy are responsible for its demise.

This is a tough situation, but I hope it can be saved. The Karousos needs to be managed. Not sure if they're up for that.

Anonymous said...

FROED???

New England Bites said...

I heard it was just awful there. I never bothered to go. I wanted to, but just never got around to it because of the bad reviews.

The Hurricane said...

We need to get a plan of action together on this piece of property. I will help anyone who is willing to start organizing the Abby is certainly a place worth putting alot of time and energy into .It wont be easy but it can be done keep me informed .I can be reached at Hurricane@ wsar.com look forward to hearing from you

Scout said...

Lefty,

I think one place to start is to ask ourselves whether we're trying to save the Abbey Grill or the historic church property it occupies.

With all due sympathy to the proprietors, the restaurant business is a tough one (hence your suggestions re: trying to get Emeril involved, etc. ... I assume you think the restaurant needs a shot in the arm in terms of out-of-town cash?)I don't know that we can or should try to keep the Abbey Grill afloat as a means of saving the church property.

Might I suggest that we look at ALL possible revenue streams for purchase and maintenance of the property, including restaurants but also arts center, commercial uses, etc?

If memory serves, I think the property might do well as a mixed-use enterprise (i.e. galleries, shops, maybe a couple of smaller restaurants/coffee shops, some lifestyle businesses, salons, etc. ... and some use tied to FR heritage would be great.)Of course, parking would be an issue.

(I apologize if the above is off-base. I'm from FR originally, but don't live there now and my knowledge of the property dates from pretty far back in the day!)

A few questions, just to lay the groundwork for discussion:

1) Is the property on the National Register of Historic Places? If so, is there perhaps an opportunity to start a Friends group and/or attract some federal funds (i.e. Save America's Treasures $$$) or private foundation support?

2) If it's on the National Register, what are the restrictions on renovation, use, etc?

3) It's my understanding that there was some community-based effort to save the church several years ago, before the Karousos family bought it? Can someone who was involved in that effort give us a brief overview of what happened and how the process led to the Karousos purchase and the Abbey Grill? Always good to know the lessons learned.

It would also be great if anybody has any insight re: what's expected to happen on Thursday in terms of the auction. Is there still time for us to make something happen?

ThirdMate said...

Call Steve Camara and Al Lima. S.A.V.E. was the organization which kept the church from parking lotness, and then sold it to Karousos. I may have mentioned this before. Could they do it again?

Scout said...

Cool blog, ThirdMate!

I'm not in FR, and don't know Mr. Camara or Mr. Lima. Is there someone on this thread who knows them, and could distill their wisdom in a post? Or could we invite them to make a "guest appearance" with us to set the table for the discussion?

I'm sure we all understand if they don't want to lead the charge again this time (I'm sure S.A.V.E. was some heavy lifting) but I think we need some baseline data before we move ahead:

1) Does the building have any protected status (i.e. National Trust)?

2) If so, are they any restrictions on use or renovations?

Then, in my opinion, the next steps are:

1) Check in with congressional delegation re: any federal funds that might be available as a jump-start or something more substantial (i.e. Save Our Treasures $$$, NEA $$$, stimulus $$$)

2) Develop a business plan

3) Figure out what kind of private funding is needed (either to bridge from public funds or as the whole enchilada, in the unlikely event that public funds aren't available)

4) Meet with key private-sector supporters, including foundations, individual donors, and banks (with a decent business plan, financing might be available ... and the industry can use some good PR these days!)

5) Launch!

As I mentioned last night, I'd love to hear about the upcoming auction process from someone closer to the process. Is there still an opportunity to do something,or are we spinning our wheels?

I think there's a lot of potential here, as the building sits at the nexus of heritage and economic development. (The big hurdles, obviously, will be fundraising and parking.) But it would be good to know what the parameters are before we get momentum going.

Exposing The Truth said...
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