Small businesses accuse Missouri city of forcing them out with baseless blight label to score lucrative deal

Three small businesses are suing a St. Louis suburb, accusing the local government of sneakily steamrolling them to make a hefty profit through a deal that could financially cripple longtime mom-and-pop shops.

“All the politicians say every day on the news how great we are, but when we’re in their way, we’re not so great,” Feather-Craft Fly Fishing President Bob Story said about small businesses. “You can be a part of a community for 30-plus years and be treated like you’re worthless.”

The city of Brentwood, Missouri, is threatening to use eminent domain to force out businesses on a major road for a multi-million dollar redevelopment plan. A few longtime business owners accused the city of making a groundless claim that the area has been “blighted” to justify the lucrative project on Manchester Road, leading them to file their lawsuit.

But Green Street, the developer behind the project, estimated it would generate more than $266 million in new revenue over the next 25 years.

Small businesses in Brentwood, Missouri, are suing the city, accusing it of using a baseless blight designation to force property owners out to replace them with a multi-million dollar redevelopment plan.  (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

“If it hasn’t happened to you yet, just wait,” said Roxanne Maier, co-owner of Convergence Dance and Body Center on Manchester Road. “We have to care about this, because this will not change unless we do something about it. This will not change unless we stand up.”

‘A dream come true for me’

Feather-Craft Fly Fishing opened its doors on Manchester Road in 1989, but the family business tracks back to 1955 when Story’s father wanted to instill his love for fly-fishing in others, a passion he would later introduce to his son.

“The business is my heart and soul,” Story told . “I’ve been working with my dad since my earliest memories. It’s just been a dream come true for me as a lifelong passionate fly-fisher.”

Story said his family has invested tens of thousands of dollars and long work days into the store, which has grown exponentially since moving to its current location. The shop originally only occupied half of the building it’s in, but now takes up the whole space, and the business even started an online retail store in recent years.

“I can tell you, there was a lot of 70-, 80-hour weeks working nights to build out, particularly the warehouse and the shop,” Story said. “The investment and time is huge.”

Bob Story stands inside his store, Feather-Craft Fly Fishing. His father opened the business in 1955.  (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

Story told Fox News Digital the business expanded throughout the building in its current location three times and that it would be hard to quantify the amount spent on renovations over three decades. Among other improvements, Bob added gondolas and pricey displays to improve the atmosphere, he said.

THE FBI TOOK HER LIFE SAVINGS. NOW SHE’S FIGHTING TO HELP OTHERS GET THEIRS BACK.

“It was a long road to get where we’re at in this building,” Story said. “To think about duplicating that anywhere else, it’s very daunting, both financially, and like I said, a business interruption.”

If the Green Street redevelopment plan takes effect, it could severely impact businesses like Story’s.

“It just can’t happen at this point,” he said. “It would be terrible for our business overall.”

Manchester Road’s ‘blighted’ designation

Green Street is poised to take over about 40 acres on both sides of Manchester Road after city officials approved a $436 million deal in July 2023 that would replace current businesses with apartments, condos, a hotel, restaurants and other establishments,according to the city’s website. Property owners could either sell willingly or be forced out byeminent domain.

In 2005, theSupreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of cities using eminent domain to seize property for economic development in the Kelo vs. New London case. Certain states, including Missouri, have since taken steps toprotect property owners, but loopholes have allowed cities to take advantage of vulnerable areas like Manchester Road, the business owners said.

In Missouri, state law allows the government to seize private property that has been deemed blighted, broadly defined as having “insanitary or unsafe conditions, deterioration of site improvements” or other factors that present “economic or social liability.”

A strip of businesses along Manchester Road in Brentwood, Missouri, could be at risk of relocation.  (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

The mom-and-pop shop owners who spoke to Fox News Digital found their ideal spots on Manchester Road, which underwent a massive revamp in 2019 through the Brentwood Bound project. The city allocated $95 million for a flood mitigation project to improve the area.

“They beautified a long stretch of Manchester Road,” said Carter Maier, who co-owns Convergence Dance and Body Center with his wife. “That low area of Manchester Road was in a floodplain, and they did a huge amount of work mitigating the flood.”

The city had deemed the area “blighted” in 2018 after significant flooding problems. City officials said they hoped the project would spearhead future development in the area, but despite the overhaul, the city again designated a portion of Manchester Road blighted in 2023.

“The entire area has been deemed blighted, and it’s not,” Amy Stanford, the co-owner of Time For Dinner on Manchester Road, said. “We are functioning, growing and a great business. How could we be blighted?”

Carter Maier told Fox News Digital the area had significantly improved since the 2018 blight designation.

“There were several properties in that time that were blighted,” he said. But by 2023, the area was totally different, with repaved roads and sidewalks, better street lighting, a playground and more green space.

“It was a beautiful space already because of the Brentwood Bound project,” Carter Maier said. “Manchester Road, it’s really pretty.”

BOTH SIDES CLAIM VICTORY AFTER SUPREME COURT RULES TEXAS RANCHER CAN SUE STATE OVER FLOODED LANDS

Carolyn Wilson, who co-owns Time For Dinner with her sister Stanford, said it made “no sense” that the city spent so much money in renovating the area only to deem it blighted.

A 2005 Supreme Court ruling allowed cities to use eminent domain to seize property for economic development. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“It also made us feel extremely vulnerable and powerless,” she told Fox News Digital.

Green Street did not return multiple requests for comment. The City of Brentwood declined to comment due to pending litigation.

“If the government is able to take our space by deeming us blight, which opens the issue up to eminent domain, then pretty much, they could take anybody’s space, including houses and businesses,” Wilson said.

‘Our heart and souls’

Stanford and Wilson took their love of cooking and family to open their meal-prep business together two decades ago. The sisters started the journey in Stanford’s kitchen after their kids had grown up, and the two both decided they wanted to change careers.

“It was a second life for both of us,” Wilson told Fox News Digital.

The store, which has been at its Brentwood location since 2004, sells meals for people to cook at home. They either include all the ingredients needed to make the spread or come prepackaged for an easy and quick dining option.

“The whole idea is for people to get healthy, home-cooked meals on the table without a lot of stress,” Wilson said.

Amy Stanford and Carolyn Wilson opened their meal-prep business in 2004 in Brentwood, Missouri.  (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, the sisters spent tens of thousands on redecorating the space for longevity as they fell in love with the location and customers. They installed new window coverings, flooring, costly freezers and refrigerators and even hired an artist to paint a mural on one of the walls.

“We’ve put a lot of money and our hearts and souls into the hours and hours that we’ve spent building the business and running the business,” Wilson said. “We love the business.”

NEW YORK TOWN’S USE OF EMINENT DOMAIN TO SEIZE LAND FROM JEWISH CHABAD FACES LEGAL CHALLENGE

Wilson said the city’s swift and sneaky approval of the redevelopment plan was “very disheartening.”

“All of our time and effort didn’t impact the decisions they were making,” Wilson said. “We were angry and dismayed and felt like nobody really cared about us.”

‘So much sweat equity’

The Maiers opened Convergence Body and Dance in 2005. The couple hoped to encourage people to stay healthy through movement, with the business operating as a dance studio, fitness center, chiropractic care and rehab facility.

“It’s super fun, and it’s a great community that we’re a part of,” Roxanne Maier told Fox News Digital.

The business started in Webster Groves, Missouri, then moved to another location before securing a home on Manchester Road where it’s been for approximately five years. They have invested over $100,000 alongside strenuous 14-hour days to customize the space into their dream business, with hopes of eventually buying the building, the couple told Fox News Digital.

Roxanne and Carter Maier dance in their studio in Brentwood, Missouri. (Courtesy Institute for Justice)

“This is the last time we’re doing this,” the couple told each other multiple times during the costly and lengthy remodel. “We’re doing it this time, because this place can be ours.”

“It’s beautiful. We love it, you know, and our students love it, and the location is great,” Roxanne Maier said. “Then, all of a sudden someone says, ‘Oh, we’re going to take that away and give it to another business because they’re going to make us more money,’ and you go, ‘Wait a second. How is that possible?’”

‘A slap in the face’

The Green Street deal also shocked some Manchester Road business owners who said they weren’t given notice about the plan or a possible forced relocation. Some found out through word-of-mouth or by reading it in the local newspaper.

“We were blindsided,” Carter Maier told Fox News Digital. “We had no idea that this redevelopment plan was even in the works.”

Why this city is using a blight label as an excuse to shut down small businesses Video

WATCH MORE FOX NEWS DIGITAL ORIGINALS HERE

He said Green Street representatives gave a vague response after he asked at a town hall what would happen to his business as a renter.

“They were very, very ambiguous about what they were willing to do for the businesses who just rented, so we’re not expecting any help,” Carter Maier said, adding that he and his wife may not be able to handle the high stress and cost of another move.

Story said the city is treating the businesses like “pawns.”

“After the jaw drop, it was a slap in the face,” Story said. “We’ve been a responsible business member of this community for 35 years. You’d think there would have been some heads up.”

“We were just completely cut out of the deal. We just feel like pawns,” he continued. “They don’t care. They’re in it for the tax revenue.”

Plans for the Manchester Road redevelopment include a 30-unit condominium, a hotel, a 660-unit apartment complex, retail space and more. (Courtesy City of Brentwood/YouTube)

‘Someone has to fight this’

The Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of the three businesses and Martin and Anthony George, the property owners of Feather-Craft Fly Fishing’s building, on Dec. 12, 2023. The lawsuit challenges the city’s blight designations and accuses the city of slapping an unfair label onto the area without proper evidence to seize the property for a hefty profit.

“I think that if you can do it to us, you can do it to anybody,” Story said. “This is happening all over the country. Big government comes in and steamrolls small businesses.”

Stanford said the case sets a precedent for city governments to use eminent domain to seize anyone’s property for big bucks.

“It’s not right that the government could decide that they want to make more money — ‘we’re just going to get rid of this whatever in this area and build something new,'” she told Fox News Digital.

The Institute for Justice lawsuit is pending as the businesses brace themselves for possible relocation. Some told Fox News Digital they could face significant financial struggles that could eventually lead to closure if they have to move.

“Of course, we’d like to win the lawsuit, but more importantly, the lawsuit has to happen and people have to know what’s going on,” Roxanne Maier told Fox News Digital.

“Someone has to fight this because this affects everybody,” she said. “It’s crushing hope.”

Ramiro Vargas contributed to the accompanying video.

Megan Myers is an associate producer/writer with Fox News Digital Originals. 

Check Also

AOC and Raskin call out 'outlandish' ethics rules at 'rogue' Supreme Court, propose strict gift restrictions

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., attacked the current ethics standards at …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *