A flyer appeared in Roseland last September announcing a rally to support Chicago's only black-run mall. A collection of low-priced clothing, shoe, jewelry, and nail shops, plus a shrimp-and-catfish carryout, the Halsted Indoor Mall at 115th and Halsted was operated by a Haitian named Pierre Romeus far behind on his rent. His landlord, the Jewel-Osco chain, seemed determined to evict him. "Let Us Stand Black to Black Against a Common Economic Enemy," the flyer proclaimed. "Today it's Pierre Romeus. Tomorrow It's Us!"
Romeus vowed to square the books and turn his mall around. "We African-Americans are responsible to do something for our people," he said then, "and I am able to, using my building and my parking lot. Instead, I get all this crazy nonsense from Jewel."
Jewel passed out a flyer of its own. It said the chain had become the target "of a number of damaging and unfounded accusations not only false, but...totally inconsistent with our long-standing commitment to the African American community." Jewel had sponsored black-oriented events and given generously to inner-city organizations. It had provided scholarships, free school supplies, and back-to-school inoculations. Furthermore, it did business with black-owned companies.
Inside the Halsted Indoor Mall, faux street signs name hallways for Malcolm X and Josephine Baker. A meeting room remembers Martin Luther King Jr. and brassy neon signs announce many stores. But on a Saturday afternoon, when those stores should be hopping, everything is much too still. A few teenagers browse through tapes laid out by the video store on tables in the center court, but they amble off without buying. Two women who'd been shopping at the Jewel-Osco next door buy jeans from a Korean shop owner and then ask for directions to the suburbs. "We're not from this area," says one. The man sitting on a bench turns out to be a shopkeeper with time to kill.
"Every day is a struggle," says Romeus's attorney, Chester Blair.
Jewel acquired the land at 115th and Halsted, on the border of Roseland and Washington Heights, in 1974. Over the next four years Jewel built not only a supermarket but alongside it a boxy, 90,000-square-foot building with a separate parking lot. A Turnstyle discount store originally moved into this building, but in 1978 May Department Stores leased the space and put in a Venture store. A Zayre discount store followed, and then an Ames, and when Ames filed for bankruptcy the box went dark. "Nothing lasted for more than two years," says 34th Ward alderman Carrie Austin. "There were various excuses for this, but it was basically that everyone lost money."
The building stood empty for years. In 1991 the TJX Companies, the parent of T.J. Maxx, took over the lease from May and tried to rent it out. "The building was rain soaked and rat infested, and all the windows were broken," Romeus says. "It looked so bad."
At the time the local alderman was Lemuel Austin, the present alderman's late husband. Clarence Brinson, a dapper man in his late 40s, approached Austin with a plan. Brinson had taught disabled students in the public schools for 15 years and moonlighted as a Hotpoint appliance inspector. According to a court brief that would be filed on his behalf when things turned bad, he'd become captivated by Eastern religions and mysticism after a younger brother was shot and killed on the south side. "Clarence was drawn to vegetarianism because of his belief that no life was worth sacrificing, whether it be human or animal," said the brief.
Brinson and his partner John Price had established the Broadview-based Vegetarian Health Society in 1976, and after three years of running it as a nonprofit that sponsored lectures and published papers turned to marketing health food cookies and related products under the Vegetarian Health banner. The company prospered, jumping from $60,000 in sales in 1979 to $3.5 million by 1985, and Brinson left teaching to devote all his energies to running it.
A vegetarian and teetotaler, Brinson owned a house in Oak Brook, an East Randolph pied-a-terre, and a retreat in Wisconsin. He and Price owned Lincoln Town Cars and custom-made Baroque Royale limousines. In 1990 Brinson met Marvin Guccione, a small businessman. The two of them formed a partnership and made plans to turn the empty building into a mall. "Clarence wanted a black-owned mall on the south side where black people could go and shop," says Dwight Samuels, a Brinson associate. "He saw the mall as a feather in the cap of the black community. That was his dream."
The partnership became 115th Mini-Mart Inc. Brinson pumped $650,000 from Vegetarian Health into the project. Romeus, an acquaintance of Guccione's, came in as the remodeling contractor with a 15 percent stake. Guccione soon abandoned ship. "I was going through a divorce, and so I got out," he says.
The 115th Street mall opened for business in October 1992, and Romeus stayed on as manager. He says it grew to 40 tenants in three years. "I'd say that 80 percent of the mall was filled," recalls Sung Jeon, who has operated a jewelry concession there with his brother Jon from the outset. "There were lots of clothing stores, and there was traffic all the time. On a Saturday afternoon you'd see 500 or 600 people coming through."
Unfortunately for Brinson, he was in no position to bask in this success. Back in 1990 he and Price had been indicted for income tax fraud; they were accused of skimming $1.38 million from the Vegetarian Health Society and some other food businesses they ran, putting the money to personal use, and failing to pay federal income tax on it for three years. On Halloween day 1991 a jury had convicted the two men; Brinson was fined $525,000 and sentenced to three years in a federal penitentiary. When the mall opened he was free on appeal.
In February 1994 Brinson finally went to prison; Romeus took over the mall. Romeus says Brinson promised him that if he ran the operation while Brinson was in prison he'd wind up an equal partner. It was an arrangement that Romeus has since described as a kind of sweat equity. The trouble is, he and Brinson didn't put anything in writing.
Romeus grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where his father ran a clothing store. He graduated with a degree in business from the College Notre Dame in Cap-Haitian (the alma mater of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's president) and studied at the Sorbonne. In 1972 he immigrated to New York, where a sister was living; two years later he moved on to Chicago. He says he directed construction projects for the Gary and Merrill-ville sanitary districts as well as back in Haiti before signing on with the mall.
A tall, suave man of 53 who speaks in the lilting patois of his homeland, Romeus has strong feelings about black history. He's proud of the street signs that mark his mall's corridors ("I'm trying to honor people who have done something") and a champion of his homeland ("You see a movie about Haiti and it usually has to do with voodoo dolls"). But he discovered black pride wasn't enough to keep the Halsted mall thriving. Romeus says the original lease with TJX ran only to 1997, so the mall couldn't offer ten-year leases to coveted retailers or to a movie theater. "I'd lose them on that issue," says Romeus. When tenants canceled their leases he couldn't always replace them, and by 1995 occupancy had dipped to 29 stores--a mix of black- and Korean-operated places that persists to this day.
In 1995 TJX sued to evict 115th Mini-Mart for nonpayment of rent. The suit also alleged other violations of the lease, including failure to pay real estate taxes and to allow TJX to vet prospective tenants. TJX asked for $585,000 in back payments, plus interest and charges. Romeus and TJX settled in September 1996: he agreed to pay his landlord $215,000 (the first $75,000 of it immediately and the balance over 36 weeks) and to let TJX clear all the leases. TJX knocked the mall rent down from $25,000 to $20,000 a month, and in 1997, when the lease was extended to 2002, Romeus and his attorney, Chester Blair, obtained a further reduction to $15,000 a month.
In September 1996 Clarence Brinson got out of prison. For a time he stood aside and let Romeus run the business. But eventually he tried to take it back.
It's difficult to say exactly what business, in a legal sense, Romeus had been running. The Illinois secretary of state's office had dissolved 115th Mini-Mart Inc. in July 1996 for failure to pay its franchise taxes and file an annual report. Brinson filed the neglected paperwork and paid the fees, and by June 1998 115th Mini-Mart Inc. was again a legal entity. Brinson named a lot of his friends to the board of directors, and in July 1998 the board met at the mall and installed Dwight Samuels, a bank manager, as its president.
Romeus had friends of his own. He belonged to a business group called the Straight Talk Economic Roundtable that had been founded by W.L. Lillard, who owned cable TV Channel 25 and a security agency. The roundtable's principles harked back to the turn-of-the-last-century philosophy of Booker T. Washington. "Cast down your buckets where you are," Washington advised other blacks. Seek economic strength before civil rights.
"By segregating our dollars from the broader community, we're building economic strength," says Lillard, "and once we're strong the broader community will come to us." This was a message that resonated with Romeus.
Accompanied by Lillard, Romeus barged in on the board meeting, and it wasn't Romeus's entrepreneurial philosophy that strengthened his hand. "W.L. was wearing a gun," says Samuels. "The gun wasn't out or anything, but you could see it in his pants. He threatened us. He said, 'This is nobody's mall but mine.'"
There was no threat, Lillard responds. "I was there because I'd been told that people had taken over a room at the mall without permission. I told Samuels, 'I'll lock your ass up if you don't get out of here.'" Police were summoned and cleared the room.
In the aftermath, Samuels told the tenants he'd now be collecting their rent. No, said Romeus, you'll go on paying me. When Samuels came by to collect the rent on August 1, a security guard from Lillard's agency told him to leave. Samuels refused, the police were called again, and Samuels wound up spending eight hours in jail.
In August 1998 Brinson went to court in the name of 115th Mini-Mart. He filed a complaint holding Romeus responsible for the TJX suit, accusing him of a "lack of fiduciary honesty," and seeking an injunction to stop Romeus from operating the mall. The case dragged on for more than two years while Judge Aaron Jaffe tried to lead the two sides to an out-of-court settlement. The judge couldn't.
"These people didn't get along," says Eileen Letts, the attorney Jaffe appointed as receiver to oversee the Halsted Indoor Mall while the case was pending. "They accused each other of lying, cheating, and stealing."
The half-empty mall struck Letts as not much of an operation, though Romeus seemed professional enough. "He had some savvy about how to run a property," she says. Romeus collected the rent, and she paid the bills. And though few tenants were paying all their rent--from month to month Romeus was shorted from $15,000 to $43,000--he kept his own expenses low and eked out a small profit, at least on paper. "I don't think there was a lot extra," says Letts.
In November 2001, Judge Jaffe ruled. "The cast of characters and entities involved are almost equal in number to the players in a Ziegfield Follies Musical," he marveled. Merely outlining the facts was a daunting task, because the judge couldn't be sure what they were. "There are gapping [sic] holes in the evidence, as well as individuals floating in and floating out without defining their interest or how it arose....There are only two people who have been with Mini-Mart from the beginning to the present time, Clarence Brinson and Pierre Romeus. Romeus is the general contractor and manager. He has worked at Mini-Mart for almost a decade. He maintains that during this period he has not been paid anything for either the contracting work or his managerial duties. Conversely, Brinson maintains that Romeus has unlawfully held the Mini-Mart and that is why it is in such bad shape. Of course, no satisfactory documents exist to prove either position. Thus, the Court believes that neither party is credible."
Jaffe concluded that the plaintiff, 115th Mini-Mart Inc., was an illusion. "Corporate formalities are not observed. Meetings are rarely held, and when meetings are held, they are held in random places, such as Pizza Hut in Schaumburg. There appear to be no bylaws in the corporate records....Corporate officers appear on some papers but are absent from others. It looks as though whoever is around at any given time, if needed, becomes an officer based on the needs of Brinson."
But as for Romeus's contention that Brinson had given him half-ownership of the mall, Jaffe said the deal was "not memorialized" and therefore didn't exist.
Because 115th Mini-Mart was "a sham corporation that is merely a facade, which allows Clarence Brinson to make his financial deals," and because Brinson "does not have clean hands and did not prove his case by anything close to a preponderance of the evidence," the judge tossed out the suit. Both sides wanted to negotiate a new lease for the mall in the name of the corporation. Jaffe said no one could. "The Court cannot permit them to further mislead innocent people who do business with them."
If Jaffe had an ounce of sympathy for anyone, it was Dwight Samuels, who'd agreed to buy stock in 115th Mini-Mart for $200,000, was named president and CEO, and eventually went bankrupt. "Samuels," wrote the judge, "possesses the greatest possibility of having been duped."
Thanks to his old partner, Marv Guccione, Brinson wasn't around for the ruling. Back in '93, Guccione had been arrested in the Loop while changing $50,000 in drug money from large to small bills in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting. He told the court this story: In 1997 his father had been gunned down at a hot dog stand at Clarendon and Broadway. The owner of the stand was also murdered. "I swore on my father's grave that I would get back at all those drug dealers," he explained in a statement. Eventually, two men were convicted and sentenced to death, but the Illinois Appellate Court ordered a retrial, and in 1987 Perry Cobb and Darby Tillis were acquitted. Guccione was outraged. "I went on a vendetta to get them and guys like them," he'd later tell this reporter. "It was almost a Charles Bronson thing."
As early as 1977, according to Guccione's statement in court, he'd been working undercover for the FBI, code name "Black Bart." When he returned to harness he was "006" to the agencies he served. "The cases that I have worked on and am still working on are many and too numerous to list."
As for the money laundering, "I went along..." he explained, "because I finally thought I could turn in all of them."
Guccione's arrest didn't dampen his desire to be of public service. "He informed the government that he believed that Mr. Brinson had laundered money for the Gangster Disciples in the past," a judicial order in Brinson's own tangled legal affairs would later synopsize. "(In fact, the government now says, it decided later that Mr. Guccione had lied. That was, however, after Mr. Brinson had agreed to launder alleged drug money.)" Guccione arranged to have the debt-ridden Brinson--free on bond as he appealed his tax fraud conviction--meet an IRS agent in a downtown hotel in September 1993 and accept a check for $215,000 in exchange for land Brinson owned in Wisconsin. When Brinson was told the money had come from cocaine, he incriminated himself with talk of washing it through the mall. In July 1998--the same month that Brinson's new 115th Mini-Mart Inc. board met to install Samuels as president--Brinson was indicted for laundering drug money. He pleaded guilty and in October 1999 was sent back to prison. He's supposed to get out this summer.
Guccione pleaded guilty and received probation.
Romeus went on running the mall. "Rumors would go around that the mall was going to close," says Songki Alexander, owner of OK Shoes. "What were we to think?"
Some tenants left; some--Foot Locker, for one--hung on. Carrie Austin, who succeeded her late husband as alderman in 1994, was a customer who stayed faithful. "I buy nylons there. My watches are repaired at Gold City. I go to OK Shoes. The only place I don't shop is Foot Locker, not being a gym shoe person, but I take my grandchildren to the store."
As the January 31, 2002, expiration date of Romeus's lease approached, his landlord, TJX (which had been leasing the building from Jewel), decided to get out. If Romeus wanted to keep the mall going he'd have to deal directly with Jewel.
Thinking that Jewel might be happy to have the building off its hands, Romeus offered $1 for it in April 2001. Jewel set him straight. "Although the property is not being marketed for sale, we have received offers to purchase this property from experienced real estate developers in excess of $2,000,000," wrote Susan Mertz, a Jewel real estate manager. "These shopping center developers have numerous developments in the Chicagoland area and are the type of Buyer we look to work with at this location."
In September a developer named Eugene Faigus met with Austin and Romeus in the alderman's office and announced that he and other investors were in the process of purchasing the building. Faigus intended to remodel it. There was no place for Romeus's operation in Faigus's plans, but he tossed Romeus a meaningless bone--an office in the mall. "We'll try to work with you," Faigus said.
Fortunately for Romeus, Austin didn't like what she was hearing from Faigus. "I allowed him to talk and talk," she says, "but my ears were closed." Faigus lost her when he said he had a vision of another Ames store. "You'll never bring Ames back," she told him. "We supported them and they raped us." (Last August Ames announced it was going out of business.) Austin says Faigus explained that he wanted to fill the mall with "a desirable type of tenant." She says, "His interest was to con-vince me that he wanted to bring in something better than what we had, and that what we had was crappy-poo. That kind of pissed me off." (Faigus, who heads a Northbrook-based development firm, would not comment.)
Business at the mall hadn't been good before September 11, and afterward it got a lot worse. Chang Hong, an owner of Chang Casual, a clothing store, says his revenues fell by 30 percent that fall and have never recovered. The mall's growing reputation for unruliness didn't help either--police were frequently called to deal with raves and parties that got out of hand. In November 2001 city inspectors found that the mall lacked a current fire inspection certificate, and at the end of that year they wrote it up for some 50 code violations, including mice and rat droppings, defective exit doors, water leaks, poor plumbing, and shoddy wiring.
Harassment, says Austin. "If Pierre had had a piece of cracked tile on the floor, they would have written him up for that. They were just hunting for stuff." As the alderman, Austin might have been in a position to do something about harassment, but apparently she wasn't. She says she called the local police commander about the treatment Romeus was getting but nothing came of it. The commander says he was never told she'd been trying to reach him.
At the end of 2001 Romeus owed TJX at least $84,000 in back rent.
In December 2001 Romeus traveled to Jewel's Melrose Park headquarters to meet with corporate officials. Romeus's delegation consisted of Austin and two community activists, Reverend Anthony Williams and Reverend Kwane John Porter. On Jewel's side of the table sat company president Peter Van Helden, vice president for real estate George Redfearn, and other executives.
The subject was Romeus's lease. "They didn't want to renew it until the building violations were corrected," says Austin. "I think they were trying to force Pierre out." Williams tried to reach Van Helden through inspiration. "As the leader of a company, you cannot lead from the rear, but from the front," the minister lectured. Austin says Van Helden turned red. "I had to calm the reverend down a little bit," says Austin.
She believed that Van Helden was too focused on the building violations to grasp the bigger picture--the need to channel black dollars through black businesses. "I honestly thought Mr. Van Helden understood us on that point," Austin says. "Well, I think he was listening to us, but his focus was somewhere else." (Van Helden has been unavailable for comment.)
In the end, Jewel, which would take over the mall from TJX four months later, agreed to extend Romeus's lease until the end of July while negotiations continued. A few weeks later Romeus and company again sat down with Jewel officials, and he offered to buy the mall for $2.1 million--$100,000 more than he understood Faigus was bidding. "We aren't in the real estate business," Van Helden told Austin--and presented a list of conditions that convinced the alderman that real estate was a business Van Helden knew nothing about.
Given its supermarket next door, it was understandable that Jewel wouldn't want Romeus opening a grocery, a pharmacy, or a beauty supplies store. But to buy the building, Romeus was being asked to wait 65 years before admitting an auto parts facility, movie theater, restaurant, banquet hall, car wash, gym, health studio, professional office, drive-through bank, or "any place of instruction catering primarily to students or trainees as opposed to customers."
Romeus was astonished. "How can you buy a building with that many restrictions?" he says. "A bank would never finance it. It wasn't a fair deal."
"Those stipulations were things that even an unbusinessperson wouldn't accept," says Austin. "The biggest concern was that Pierre wouldn't have banquet facilities, which he wanted--and which I need in my ward. It was like Jewel was going to sell him a house and say, 'That's fine, except you can't attach a garage to that house.' Jewel wanted to sell him the mall, all right, except they didn't want to sell him the mall. I bet when they dealt with Faigus they didn't bring up all these stipulations. Pierre'd be a fool to accept them."
A Jewel spokesman said the proposed restrictions were "standard clauses that are part of a real estate agreement." But she went on, "The entire agreement is negotiable. Some things could be changed, some things can't be changed." Greg Calhoun, an Alabama-based equal-opportunity consultant brought in by Operation PUSH to help mediate the dispute, says in Jewel's defense that a movie theater or banquet hall would encroach on the supermarket's parking.
Lillard says that when he, Romeus, and Austin met with George Redfearn last spring, Redfearn put two new conditions on a sale. Romeus would have to shoulder the estimated $175,000 it would take to separate the mall from the supermarket's sprinkler system, putting up the money in advance, and if the actual cost exceeded $175,000 would have 30 days to cover the balance. And given all the back rent Romeus owed, the rent from the mall's east-lying stores--Payless Shoe Source, Foot Locker, and others--would go to Jewel, not to the mall, for the remainder of those leases. "Those items were meant as deal breakers," says Lillard. But Greg Calhoun says Romeus agreed to buy the building with the restrictions and simply asked for time because he wanted to switch lawyers. "Pete [Van Helden] said, 'OK, so long as you pay your back rent,'" recalls Calhoun, "and Jewel still wanted Pierre to fix up his building violations."
Romeus says that late the Friday afternoon of July 26, 2002, Jewel told him to fork over $45,000 in back rent by the following Monday evening or any deal was off. "It was a setup," says Romeus. He didn't come up with the money, says Lillard, because Redfearn couldn't guarantee that the despised lease restrictions would be altered. Citing nonpayment of rent, Jewel went to court to evict Romeus.
Echoing Dwight Samuels a few years earlier, Jewel told the shop owners to pay it their rent, not Romeus. "I wasn't going to pay Jewel," says Jon Jeon. "Pierre was still running the mall--opening and closing it. When Jewel has a manager here, I'll pay him." Jewel invited tenants to a meeting to hear about "the status of future lease agreements" at the mall, but few if any showed up. The tenants have continued to bring their rent to Romeus.
By last fall, Romeus and his supporters were accusing Jewel of discrimination. "I think they're doing this to me because I'm black," Romeus was saying. "They just don't want to sell me the thing." The evidence at hand began with the phrase "the type of Buyer we look to work with," from Susan Mertz's May 2001 letter to Romeus. "That letter sounds racist to me," says Lillard. "All the decisions put up against Pierre smell of that. Here's somebody who establishes a business for ten years. I'd think you'd find a way to go to bat for him."
Jewel spokesman Karen Ramos wasn't aware of Mertz's letter. But she denied that the firm was biased. "Absolutely not. How could that be when we have thousands of employees who are African-American?" She made a list of some 50 not-for-profit activities supported by Jewel that benefit blacks, from the annual Bud Billiken parade to a program of the Apostolic Church of God to fight AIDS in Africa. Among the Jewel-funded community groups that she named were Rainbow/PUSH and the Chicago Urban League.
Lillard argues that these groups have been "bought off by trinkets and endowments." He says, "I'm not going to say anything about any specific group. I consider Jesse [Jackson] a friend. My security people protected him for 30 years, personally and through PUSH. But practically nobody came to Pierre's side."
Some people tried. Last summer Reverend Anthony Williams called for a demonstration at 45th and Michigan in front of the headquarters of the Urban League, on whose board Peter Van Helden sits. But Williams says he canceled it when Urban League president James Compton promised to look into the mall issue. Compton praises Jewel as "a longtime, generous supporter of the Urban League--opening facilities for voter registration, offering scholarships." But, he continues, "that doesn't keep us from being critical where there's justification." Compton says the Urban League conducted "an evaluation" and found "no justification to become engaged."
Until September, Darice Wright directed the LaSalle Street Project, a Rainbow/PUSH program to exact affirmative-action commit-ments from midwestern corporations. She's the one who brought in Greg Calhoun. "We got Pierre extra time on his lease, which is what Pierre wanted, and Jewel gave him the opportunity to buy the building," says Wright. "In the spring, after Romeus fell out of contact with Jewel's lawyers, I said, 'Well, let's just let this play out.' You can't advocate for somebody if you aren't getting the information."
The demonstration last September 8 was spearheaded by the All-City Car and SUV Club Association, composed of 16 automobile lodges with ties to Lillard. Lillard was the lead speaker at the rally, which he says drew a thousand people and which he calls a success. It was broadcast on Straight Talk, his nightly TV program, and covered by the Chicago Crusader and the Chicago Defender. Jesse Jackson didn't show.
Last August Romeus paid the city a $2,000 fine and entered into a consent degree that required him to correct conditions at the mall by November 27. The corporation counsel's office says he didn't. Spokesman Jennifer Hoyle reported this week that city inspectors went through the mall in late March and only 5 of 50 cited violations had been corrected. She said city lawyers would soon be taking Romeus back into court.
But says Dwight Samuels, who now operates a south-suburban insurance agency, "Pierre's saying to Jewel, 'Oh, you're putting this old black man out of business.' That's bullshit. He and Blair and Lillard are playing the race card and playing it well. They've got Jewel backed up against the wall. I say throw Pierre out. You tell Jewel for me, 'Don't be hoodwinked! Stand your ground!'"
Greg Calhoun also takes Jewel's side. "Because of his skin color, Peter Van Helden gave Mr. Romeus more opportunity to be successful, not less," Calhoun says. "This is an instance of a man not paying his deal. I know from the bottom of my heart that Jewel-Osco was more than fair to him. He's been making it bad for other African-Americans, no matter where they live."
And Clarence Brinson, writing from prison last autumn, accused Romeus of "trying to hide behind 'Blackness.'" He assured this reporter in a letter that "this story that you wish to write concerning the Mall is a very interesting saga of intrigue, treachery, and betrayal."
Romeus's supporters argue that he's earned the right to stay on. "Pierre deserves a little understanding and help, since he's doing so much in an area which is considered blighted," says Chester Blair. Lillard adds, "Pierre's mall is something that blacks can look up to with pride. With [Jewel's] money and power they want to put in high-end stores and make the mall work better. But I see greed in their eyes, instead of their being a good corporate neighbor." Says Austin, "They should let Pierre have the mall and stop running him round the mulberry bush."
On February 5 Jewel and Romeus agreed to stay the eviction suit pending sale of the mall. Within a week Romeus made an offer to buy the building for $2.1 million. Jewel accepted it, and in March Romeus signed a sales contract and posted earnest money in an escrow account. Lillard, an investor, says Romeus put up $200,000, about twice the amount required. Jewel gave Romeus to April 28 to line up financing and close the deal. In the meantime he'd owe Jewel $15,000 a month rent, though Jewel dropped its claims for back rent, attorney's fees, and late fees. As for that long list of business types that wouldn't be permitted in the Halsted Indoor Mall--"Jewel compromised a little bit," says Lillard, "but not too much."
If all this sounded like progress, Alderman Austin didn't think it was. Romeus and Jewel weren't talking this week, but Austin sounded off. Don't be fooled, she said: nothing Romeus does to demonstrate wherewithal has ever satisfied the grocery chain. "Jewel's still playing the games they play. They really don't want him to have that building. It's been as difficult as Jewel can make it."
And those building code violations are enough to make her wonder if the city's in "cahoots" with Jewel. Most cite conditions in the banquet facility, said Austin, and it's been empty more than a year!
"He's a gentle, caring person," the alderman said about Romeus. "He's not the kind of person to warrant any enemies."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.