Say coffee shop might take away retail space on Main St.
ONEONTA — A group looking to establish a cafe on Main Street downtown said it wants to offer good food, but some city officials and residents said they’re afraid the group will do more than that.
The Oneonta Planning Commission has received a site-plan application for a Common Ground Cafe at 175-177 Main St., in the Bresee’s block.
Common Ground Cafes are run and owned by the Twelve Tribes, a religious organization with “communities” throughout the United States and other parts of the world.
The group has about 3,000 members worldwide, but some say it is a cult.
That is what concerns some officials and community members.
“Do they purchase multiple properties?” asked Barry Warren, director of the Center for Economic and Community Development at the State University College at Oneonta. “Do they recruit aggressively?
“I think that’s what most families are worried about,” Warren said Wednesday.
Roderick Frandino, a member of the group’s community near Albany, the Common Sense Farm in Cambridge, submitted the site-plan application.
The possible new owners of the building, Kenneth and Karen Hart, are members of a community in Dorchester, Mass.
The Harts haven’t completed the sale yet, Kenneth Hart said, but hope to soon. The building is owned by Peter Clark and David Wilber III.
The group is looking at Oneonta, Hart and Frandino said, because it thinks it could have community support here.
“Oneonta is definitely a town that appreciates good food,” Hart said.The deli would serve “wholesome, organic food,” he said. Menu items include salads, wraps and sandwiches. Common Ground Cafes don’t serve alcohol.
Another business with coffee and sandwiches
The primary concern with the plan is that the space would be turned from a retail shop into a restaurant, said planning commissioners Jean Ostrowski, Rob Robinson and David Zummo.
The building houses the Body and Soul Lifestyle Center, which has been there for about 101/2 years, owner John Mason said Tuesday.
“I haven’t made a decision whether I’m going to move,” Mason said. “It would be a choice of me moving or going out of business.”
Mason said he was concerned about the Twelve Tribes’ motives for coming to Oneonta.
“It is a venue for them to recruit for their religious commune. I think that’s probably a major part of them coming to the city,” he said, adding that it wouldn’t be his “cup of tea.”
More spaces that aren’t retailers would make downtown less attractive, Mason said.
“I think Main Street has a great deal of diversity,” he said. “Diversified small specialty-businesses are what tend to be best.
“I don’t think the commercial district of Main Street is an appropriate location (for the group),” Mason added.
There are five similar businesses in a two-block area, in addition to other places to buy and eat food in downtown Oneonta. Mason said he didn’t see the need for a similar shop.
“My main concern is retail space,” she said. “We could lose the retail space.”
Robinson, who also is president and chief executive officer of the Otsego County Chamber, said replacing a niche business such as the Lifestyle Centre with another restaurant and coffeehouse wouldn’t be a good idea.
Tim Johnson, co-owner of the Autumn Cafe restaurant at 244 Main St., said a question that needs to be answered is what the Twelve Tribes would do with the space if the sale occurs.
“It doesn’t sound like something downtown Oneonta needs,” Johnson said.
The planning commission will meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Representatives from the Twelve Tribes, however, will not come back to the commission until at least June.
This proposal will not be handled differently from other business and site-plan reviews, Mayor Kim Muller said.
“We have a process for review and we’re going to follow that process for this proposal, as we would for any other one,” she said.
Zummo is the owner of the Latte Lounge, a coffeehouse at 196 Main St., but he said he doesn’t plan to abstain when the commission eventually votes on the site plan.
Preserving downtown’s viability
The planning commission made several recommendations to the group during its April 20 meeting.
“My understanding is that they will be thinking over our recommendations and coming back,” Ostrowski said Wednesday.
Those recommendations included other uses for the store, other locations, offering Saturday hours and changing the store’s facade.
The group’s tradition is to take a day of rest on Saturday.
According to minutes from the planning commission’s meeting, Zummo found that “in talking to the other restaurant and cafe owners up and down Main Street, he thought they would probably like the applicants to find a different business to get into.”
This is something Jeff House, Oneonta downtown developer, said he also mentioned to group members. The Twelve Tribes run several types of businesses, he said.
“Try to offer something that’s more of an alternative rather than something of the same thing,” House said he recommended.
Frandino said members of his group were meeting this week to see how the planning commission’s recommendations could fit into their plan.
“I was open to hearing suggestions,” he said. “That’s why I went (to the planning commission), and we do want to work with them.”
The group will develop a more-detailed goal, Frandino said, but that goal is still a restaurant.
The spot wouldn’t entirely be a restaurant, Frandino said. Common Ground Cafes do have storefronts, he said, adding that the space would also have open discussion nights and music.
Common Ground Cafe does what it can to attract people to the cafe, Hart said Tuesday. He said the restaurant would be similar to others that the Twelve Tribes operate.
The group has a restaurant and community in Ithaca.
“They’re good neighbors,” said Annie Sherman, executive assistant to Ithaca’s mayor and an Ithaca resident. “They’re a nice group.
“I know the business’ owner, and he’s a very responsible man,” Sherman said Tuesday.
There is nothing legal preventing Twelve Tribes from coming and opening a business.
“Anybody’s allowed to open a business,” House said. “They have the same right to open a business as anyone else.”
That doesn’t assuage concerns, however.
A Common Ground Cafe could undermine other businesses, Robinson said.
Finances are a large part of the concern surrounding the group and its proposed plans for downtown Oneonta, several planning commission members said.
“This group has an unlimited amount of resources that no other retailer on Main Street can compete with,” Zummo said. “It is everyone’s opinion that this group has an endless amount of money.”
Local retailers, however, have a finite supply of money to keep a business alive, Zummo said. If the Common Ground Cafe came in and thrived, he said, similar businesses could be put out of business.
“We want to drive needed retailers into these storefronts,” Zummo said. “I believe the community would agree that the coffeehouse business has been fulfilled.”
The cafe could be a threat, Johnson said, if it didn’t charge competitive prices.
“We need to know more,” he said. “I don’t think the city would go for it.”
But the group would certainly have the right to open a coffee shop, House said.
“Whether I think that’s a good idea, my answer is no,” House said.
“I’m not sure that another coffee shop would attract more people,” he said. “That’s my concern.”
Warren of SUCO said, “You have to be careful not to put others at a disadvantage.”
According to the minutes from the April 20 planning commission meeting, Hart said the group was not a nonprofit organization and would pay taxes. Any profits are distributed equally among the members, he said during the meeting.
Religion is not a factor from the planning commission’s standpoint, Robinson said.
But the Twelve Tribes’ practices are cult-like, said the Rev. Gary Bonebrake of the Main Street Baptist Church in Oneonta.
Allegations against the group from outsiders have included child abuse, child labor and brainwashing, said local resident Alice Lichtenstein, who said she was concerned when learning about the Twelve Tribes proposal. She said she would attend Wednesday’s meeting and is urging others to go.
Bonebrake said that “as an American,” he believed everyone has the right to express his or her religious beliefs, but, “as an Oneontan, I don’t know that this is the best thing for downtown Oneonta.”
The group’s religious status doesn’t matter, Muller said, but its financial status does.
“What I want to make sure is that what we put in downtown is appropriate for downtown,” Muller said Wednesday. “There might be other areas of the city that might be more appropriate.”
Rick Ross, the executive director of the Rick A. Ross Institute in New Jersey, an institute that deals with cults and assisting former members, said, “No one will work there other than the group.
“They have no labor costs like a commercial business,” he said recently.
Ross said most of the money the group makes will be directed to the hierarchy, which eventually ends with its leader, 67-year-old Gene Spriggs Jr. of Chattanooga, Tenn.
“Mr. Spriggs is the absolute authority without question,” Ross said. “He lives very well. The elders live fairly well. The others live like dogs.”
David Pike is a former member of the Twelve Tribes who now lives in Staten Island.
Pike, 48, said he was with the Twelve Tribes for seven years and finally left last June. While living in tribes’ communities, Pike said, he was involved with Common Ground Cafes.
“I’ve worked in the cafe,” Pike said Wednesday. “I know how it works.”
Pike said members work all day — in the cafe or at other jobs — and try to bring people into the group.
“You try to convince everyone that it’s a wonderful life,” he said.
Twelve Tribes comes to towns such as Oneonta, he said, because there are college students and others who could easily be lured into the group.
The cafe’s main purpose, he said, is proselytizing and evangelizing. It is designed to draw people in and get them interested in the group, Pike said.
But Frandino said the restaurants are not a front for recruiting members.
“We like to talk to people and give people good food,” he said.
“That’s our life,” Frandino said. “We like to be hospitable.”
The group would bring in people from other Twelve Tribes communities to operate the cafe, Frandino confirmed.
That method is called swarming, he said. When other communities grow larger, Frandino said, some members may be sent elsewhere to start a new community.
“We call it swarming, as in a beehive,” Frandino said. “A bee-hive is a very efficient and orderly community.”
Part of the meetings this week about the space involved deciding who would come to Oneonta if the deal goes through, Frandino said.
That is another concern for the area, Zummo said.
“It’s how it’s going to affect the entire community,” Zummo’s wife, Corrine, said. “We’re responsible for so much more than ourselves.”