SHARPSTOWN, Houston, Texas — Many often wonder why Sharpstown continues to have, not withstanding the Chinatown corridor, a stagnant if not declining retail sector. Well, recent events make it clear that elected officials at the urging of civic club leaders can make it quite difficult to successfully invest in southwest Houston. The just published issue of the Sharpstown Civic (SCA) newsletter provides a case in point, and I feel obligated to provide a more complete picture of their “Drive-Thru Update” (Page 12).
Investors have pumped almost $1.5 million into the old Kmart center in the triangle of the SW Freeway and Beechnut, luring solid tenants like Planet Fitness and Harbor Freight Tools to the location. The former photo shop and used car dealer building, on a pad site in the parking area is on track for a $250,000 overhaul. Plans for an innovative daiquiri, smoothie, and Cajun style food establishment, a place that would usually cater to young, hip Heights or Midtown residents, may now move forward. The SCA, with the help of State and City officials, worked to temporarily block the issuance of a TABC license.
The “Drive-Thru Update” provides a cursory description of what is actually an extensive effort to oppose the opening of “Sam” Mene’s proposed Prime Daiquiri + Food restaurant. While it accurately describes a hearing before Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s designee, Bill Henderson, it leaves the reader with the idea that Sam was uncooperative.
That impression is at minimum unfortunate, as Mr. Henderson found in favor of the applicant on May 15th, granting approval of the TABC permit with some restrictions. The Conclusion of Law declares —because of the proposals and pledges offered and the training already obtained…this establishment is far less likely to harm the community than most permitted establishments.
Sharpstown Civic Leaders Engage Officials to Block Wine & Beer Permit
Let me be clear up front; this is not about approving of alcohol or drinking, or drinking and driving. I respect the personal view any individual may have relating to alcohol, and I share the concern about responsibility. This story is about a young family trying to open a small restaurant, not much bigger than a food truck, in an effort to make a real investment in our community.
Almost a year ago, Sam applied for a wine & beer permit from the TABC for his proposed small-footprint Cajun restaurant. The planned redevelopment would bring much needed investment to Sharpstown. To his detriment, the banner on the old building announcing the business attracted attention, and soon the SCA had enlisted the help of State Rep. Wu, Council Member Laster, and the HBU Police Chief John Karchner to protest the opening.
The SCA Officers, Menville, LeBlanc, Davidson, and Mitchell, handled this poorly from the beginning, engaging elected officials to join and carry the fight. There was no effort to reach out to the applicant, no attempt to conduct due diligence or review, just blind opposition. Along with Wu, Laster, and Karchner, when asked, they refused to even meet with Mr. Mene to discuss their concerns.
The SCA provided no reasoning or rationale to their members or the community, nor do they describe any concern as to why this particular business would be a potential problem. This was all done behind closed doors. They did make a single Facebook post (Oct. 2016), encouraging residents to protest, to “follow the link” to an SCA page where fill-in-the blank protest forms were ready to be completed and sent to Rep. Wu’s office. Asked for a copy of his protest complaint, Wu’s office promptly provided a copy of his letter, while the SCA ignored the initial request, only sending their version weeks later after a follow up call. Neither of these were ever posted or shared publicly.
The SCA provided no reasoning or rationale to their members or the community, nor do they describe any concern as to why this particular business would be a potential problem.This was all done behind closed doors.
Meanwhile, this writer reached out to the applicant, Sam Mene, and inquired about his business model and plans for operation. I learned about his Cajun food menu, that he’d grown up in the neighborhood and was returning home with his young family to start this business, and that he intended to invest as much as $250,000 in the start up.
The Southwest Plaza property manager indicated he’d vetted Sam thoroughly and felt the restaurant would be a good fit along side Planet Fitness and Harbor Freight, reporting that the owner had invested almost $1.5 million in a new façade and build out to upgrade the property. This seemed to me a reputable, solid, redevelopment plan.
After discussing the issue with an SCA Board member, I attended an SCA board meeting and encouraged them to meet with Sam. There were several statements made by board members about the proposed business, that the owner had multiple locations (franchise), that the drinks were hard liquor based, and a lack of awareness of the food menu, all of which based on my review I knew to be incorrect or incomplete.
I reminded them of the contract between the SCA and Club Tequila in the same center, which requires very specific actions by the club. This agreement appears to have been an effective tool, and there are no reported complaints to the SCA since the club opened in 2012. I also stated my view that that this tiny pad site would be no “Carnaval Club” and asked they meet with him one on one, gather the facts, and then make a good decision, making no request that they withdraw their protest.
The SCA officers seemingly agreed to sit down with Sam, but instead made him appear before the board like a property owner with a deed restriction violation. Mr. Mene has reported that Rep. Wu and Chief Karchner declined to meet, and CM Laster never returned his call. There was no effort to actually discuss or consider a solution.
A protest hearing was scheduled and postponed, then rescheduled and held on April 17th. The SCA was represented by Menville, Davidson, & Mitchell (LeBlanc attended the postponed hearing), with Rep. Wu’s staff (Greg Wythe), HBU’s Karchner, and CM Laster in protest. Menville read a statement, with Laster and Karchner providing additional testimony in opposition.
Gallery of Protest Hearing, April 17th, 2017 – (Left to Right): Betty Townes, Dale Davidson (TIRZ 20 Vice Chair, SCA Secretary), Margaret Mitchell (SCA Treasurer), Greg Wythe (Staff for Rep. Gene Wu), John Karchner (HBU Police Chief), Mike Laster (City Council), Jeremy Harris (Staff for CM Laster)
The SCA’s primary objection centers on the drive-through feature of the building. This hypothetical issue, a potential increase in impaired drivers, none of which is born by evidence or facts, remains the underlying objection. The only accommodation acceptable to the SCA was for Mr. Mene to not open the store. Limiting hours, adding uniformed security, and using labeled, lock top sealed containers were adjustments made by Mr. Mene, but rejected by the SCA. These are the pledges mentioned in the conclusion of law by Bill Henderson when approving the application.
At this hearing, I also provided background testimony to include that of the ten protest letters, only four were from residents not part of the SCA leadership. Out of possibly 20,000 or more residents in the Sharpstown Subdivision, this isn’t even a rounding error. This protest wasn’t driven by community concern, but developed internally by the SCA leaders.
I also pointed out that despite HBU objections, the Shell Convenience Mart which is contiguous with the HBU campus, has a long history of violations and sells “singles” which are easily consumed by a driver headed home. In addition, two hard liquor permit applications were pending for businesses on campus at the Pillars (there were actually three). Was this about limiting more alcohol locations or just trying to stop a competitor?
It seems this type of to-go business model has operated in southwest Houston for over twenty years, without evidence of any problem. This was not relevant to the SCA. Mike Laster testified he didn’t even know such to-go businesses existed, proving the lack of any real problem.
I also testified that in my view Sam had been gracious, accommodating, and respectful in trying to address community concerns and that their whole case is hypothetical and unproven. That is exactly what the Hearing Master Bill Henderson found as facts and the conclusion of law.
Preview: State Representative Gene Wu begins a full court press to block this business from operating, by filing legislation, a state wide change to the alcoholic beverage code, potentially impacting craft beer brewers. Other government entities were pressed by Wu for support in opposing the Sharpstown applicant’s license. Meanwhile, “after hours” clubs, bikini bars, and motels flourish inside our community.