NEWS

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April 22, 2003

Economy, poor management blamed for closing of Cafe Siena

As the troubled economy continues to affect businesses across the country, Cafe Siena recently closed its doors for business, adding another vacant property to the row of buildings located on the eastern portion of 55th Street.

Cafe Siena, located between Cornell and South Hyde Park Avenues on 55th Street, was a popular draw among residents of Shoreland and Broadview dormitories and other students living in apartments near the lake. Much like the Subway across the street, Cafe Siena offered both Internet access and late hours to attract the University's student population.

"It was a good mix of people in [the cafe]," said Damian Ekiert, a former employee and student in the College. "There were plenty of students, but at least one-third of the people in there were people from around the neighborhood--just a lot of regular folks."

The sudden closing of the late night coffee shop surprised many in the Hyde Park community. "I went on vacation and when I came back it was closed," said Lauren Alspaugh, executive director at the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce. "I'm as much in the dark as you are."

According to a representative of Blackstone Management, the real estate company that owns the property, the proprietors of the cafe fell three months behind in rent and were taken to court over the unpaid funds. After failing to pay an additional two months in rent, Cafe Siena's management closed the store the day before a second court appointment.

To date, Blackstone Management still owes five months in rent.

"There's a lease agreement, and they're still obligated to pay," the representative said. "There's another court date coming up for the rent sometime in June. After that, I believe it will go to collection."

While the specific financial problems of the cafe were unclear, the Blackstone representative speculated that the owners of the establishment were often not present to oversee the fiscal operations of the establishment.

Those who worked at the cafe believe that the failure to sell a wide range of merchandise--such as mugs or coffee beans like Starbucks--was the most important factor in the store's financial difficulties.

"People would come in to study and buy a cup of coffee and stay there for three hours," Ekiert said. "After a while, we started receiving notices in the mail that we were behind on the bills."

Cafe Siena joins several Hyde Park businesses that have recently shut down due to financial complications. The former properties of World Gym, Tony's Sports, Max Brook Cleaners, and the 55th Street Flower Shop all currently remain vacant after folding in the past few years.

Still, Hyde Park officials remain confident about the economic prospects for the neighborhood.

"[The vacant spaces] are not for lack of interest in the community. People call me all the time looking to start a business," said Bob Mason, executive director at the South Eastern Chicago Commission. "I constantly refer people to management companies or whoever displays a sign in their window. I am also in touch with some commercial brokers to keep them aware of what they have so we can be alert for potential clients."

Local officials maintain that the entire country is experiencing economic difficulty and Hyde Park is no different in that respect.

Mason was particularly critical of Blackstone Management, however, for their apparent failure to lease many of their properties east of the Metra on 53rd Street.

"It does concern me that we have all these spaces, but especially with [Blackstone]," Mason said. "I suppose they are trying to determine what they are trying to do with property east of the track on 53rd Street, but it doesn't look good. People call weekly looking for spaces to go into business and I refer them."

The reasons for Blackstone's inability to fill the empty spaces remain ambiguous, Mason said.

Blackstone's representative said the company was currently talking to several potential clients who were in the process of obtaining financing for the spaces in question. Blackstone could not comment on the identity of these businesses though, saying that it might complicate the project of gaining the necessary financing.

Several businesses have also chosen to leave Blackstone Management and relocate elsewhere in Hyde Park, including Max and Co. Hair Stylists and the Cedars of Lebanon restaurant. "Some businesses have moved down the street," Mason said.