For the past few months Mark Thomas, owner of the Alley on Belmont, has been attacking the same neighborhood business organization he spent years building up, the Central Lake View Merchants Association. He claims it's become an "insiders' club with no sense of how to spend all the money it raises."
Some of his erstwhile association allies are happy to shoot back, though not on the record. Thomas, they say, is a chronic complainer who can't stand to work in any group larger than himself. "I won't dignify this story or this man with a comment," says Liz Caldwell, executive director of the association. "He's not worth writing about."
Thomas says he doesn't care if they criticize him, because he doesn't think the association represents most of the merchants in the area or promotes their interests aggressively. "I'm not afraid to be the guy screaming into the wind," he says, his gravelly voice rising. "There are only nine or ten people in Lakeview who know the truth, and I'm one of them--and what's got them so pissed off is that I'm screaming it out loud."
Thomas is one of Lakeview's most colorful characters and one of its best schmoozers, offering an abundance of insider gossip. He hops from one topic to the next, wallowing in juicy details and revealing ironies, and doesn't lose his place when interrupted by phone calls, faxes, children, or employees.
At 49, he looks like the aging hippie he is, with his baggy shirts and pants and his hair in a ponytail. "You know what I am?" he says. "I'm the son of a doctor who became the Lake County, Indiana, coroner--a very political guy named Daniel Thomas. Yeah, that's right--same name as the entertainer. He ran for office as Danny Thomas. Probably got a lot of votes that way. He was pretty well-off, though it didn't do me much good. I tell people I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but after my parents got divorced they took the spoon out of my mouth and knocked out a few of my teeth."
Thomas was born in Gary in 1954. He was ten when his parents split up--both have since died--and his mother moved his two sisters and him to Chicago. He lived in Rogers Park and went to Swift elementary, then Senn High School for a year. In his sophomore year, he says, his mother "decided I was better than Senn. She sent me to Latin. But guess what? My father refused to pay for Latin because it wasn't in the divorce decree. I was thrown out of Latin for failing to pay tuition."
He wound up attending Holy Name Cathedral's high school--"Pretty wild for a Jewish boy, huh?"--paying tuition with the money he earned selling candles. "I met this wild old man in Old Town, and he had a candle business. He set me up, and--oh, it's a long story, but the bottom line is I wound up selling the stuff out of my car." He discovered he had a knack for sales. In his late teens he sold everything from bongs to posters of Burt Reynolds, and poured the money he made into other ventures. By 1974, when Thomas was 20, he was a big name in the head-shop business.
"I got into the head business because that was just the business to go into," he says. "I mean, I was a hippie kid--that was the culture I knew. Am I happy with that life? Listen, I'll be honest. It was a dark period. The drug scene is not a good scene. But what can I say? This is the life I lived, and I'm not going to lie about it. I did that from the time I was 17 until I was 28. I moved around the city. At one point I had the old Maybelline factory building at Clark and Ridge--30,000 square feet. My office--you can't imagine how huge it was. We were doing $300,000 to $400,000 a month in head supplies. I had 75 to 100 people working for me. I was big--and then, bam, the laws changed and I walked away. The federal government started coming down hard on head-shop people. That was--what, '82, '83? I'm not so good on dates. I had to walk away from 12 to 13 years of making good money."
Thomas moved into jewelry and T-shirts and other clothing, opening a shop in Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. He got married and had two daughters and began buying buildings throughout the city. He first opened the Alley on the northwest corner of Broadway and Surf. "That area was hot when I opened there, but then it got decimated by suburban fears of AIDS and HIV," he says. "People stopped coming into the community. In 1986 we moved to 858 W. Belmont. I've been here ever since."
The store was next to the Dunkin' Donuts at Clark and Belmont. "This was in the day of the Medusa juice bar, where you had all these kids hanging around the doughnut shop," Thomas says. "I was selling leather and T-shirts the kids wanted. We caught the wave. We did almost a million bucks in that first year."
As the years passed, Thomas opened five other businesses nearby, offering cigars (Blue Havana), vintage clothes (Jive Monkey), lingerie and sex toys (Taboo-Tabou), home decor (Architectural Revolution), and silver (Silver District). "I'm doing good, but I figure I gotta do something to get involved with the community," he says. "I call the alderman--back then it was Bernie Hansen--and he said, 'Mark, you ought to go to a meeting of the local merchants' association.'" But that association was floundering. "The only good thing I got out of it is that I met Sam Toia, who runs Leona's restaurant. We hit it off right off. I'm a guy with a million ideas, and Sam's got a ton of energy and charisma. I'd tell him, 'Sam, this neighborhood needs an organization. When you have a problem, say, with the city, it doesn't work to go in as an individual. There's power in numbers.'"
Thomas and Toia both joined the North Halsted Merchants Association, a business group north of Belmont. "We brought over seven or eight members from our area, and they gave us a couple of seats on their board," says Thomas. "We were there three or four years, and then we said, 'Let's go back to Belmont.' Nothing against North Halsted--they're a great group. But we had different issues from them, 'cause we're basically in a different area."
In 1992 he and Toia formed the Central Lake View Merchants Association. "At the start, it was me and Sam and Dan Pepin from Corus Bank, though back then it was Belmont National Bank," says Thomas. "Our director was Sara Feigenholtz, who was this aide for Bernie Hansen. Of course she's a state rep now. Back then she was just building her political base."
Over the years the core group grew to include Jim Schuman (owner of Berlin nightclub), Ric Hess (owner of Sheffield's bar), Norm Groetzinger (director of the Counseling Center of Lake View), and Tom Tunney (who owned Ann Sather's; he turned the business over to his family when he was elected alderman of the 44th Ward this past February). It might seem odd that a guy who got his start in head shops was helping run a chamber of commerce. But then the association was no normal chamber. "We're the most unbusinesslike business group you've ever seen," says Thomas. "There's all these old hippies and social-worker types on board. I loved it."
Thomas says he felt like the mayor of Belmont. "I loved walking along Belmont and Clark and Sheffield, shooting the breeze," he says. "I had a ton of ideas--they were spilling out. The thing about me is, I think I have attention deficit disorder. But the way I get around it--the way I turn a weakness into a strength--is that I get involved in everything."
His first big idea was to create a special service area to help fund the organization. An SSA is an economic-development tool overseen by the city that enables property owners to tax themselves and then spend the money as they see fit--usually on such things as promoting local businesses, making the area attractive, keeping the streets clean and safe, and working with the city to resolve complaints. According to Thomas, there are 23 SSAs in the city, including 4 in Lakeview (city spokesman Pete Scales didn't return calls asking for confirmation).
"The big thing about an SSA is that it gives you a permanent source of income, so that in our case we could go out and hire an executive director," says Thomas. "That was crucial for us in order to have someone to meet people and deal with the city. Because a lot of these merchant groups go month after month saying I'll do this and I'll do that, and then no one does anything--because they're really too busy running their own businesses."
Starting the process of getting an SSA wasn't difficult. "It's basically a matter of winning over your alderman," says Thomas. "Because it's like just about anything else in this city--if your alderman wants it you're gonna get it."
Thomas, Toia, and Feigenholtz met with Hansen. "Bernie signed on early," says Thomas. "'You wanna SSA? No problem with me,' he tells us. Why should it be a problem to him? If the City Council raises the property tax everyone's hollering at him, but who's gonna holler about a self-imposed tax? He probably figures, 'What the hell do I care if they raise their taxes?'"
The process did require a lot of paper- and legwork. "You have to draw up the boundaries, and it's all got to be contiguous," says Thomas. "Then you gotta search all the property titles to see who pays the taxes, and then you have to mail these people a notice telling them there's going to be a public hearing and if they have any objections they should show up. Of course hardly anyone ever shows up, because--you wanna know the dirty little secret? Most people don't know what's going on. Most people barely read their mail. They get a notice from the city and they look at it and they throw it out. The SSA tax goes straight on their property-tax bill. It's not like the city sends them a separate statement saying, 'Here's your SSA tax. Pay up.' You don't even know that you're paying it unless you go through the fine print of your tax bill--and who reads the fine print of a tax bill? I don't even do that, and I'm into this stuff."
Conducting property searches and sending out notices costs money. "To raise the money to get the SSA," says Thomas, "we figured we'd hold a festival."
The first was in 1994. "It ran along Belmont from Clark to Sheffield, and it wasn't so bad," says Thomas. "Kathleen from Tragically Hip did a fashion show. Tom Tunney set up a cafe outside his restaurant. Philly's Best was out on the street. We had clowns and balloons and stages with music. Between the beer and the gate we came away with a profit of $16,000." Over the next three years they continued to hold the festival.
On October 28, 1997, the City Council unanimously adopted Hansen's proposal for a Central Lakeview Special Service Area. Its boundaries snake along mostly commercial streets--Clark, Belmont, Sheffield--to avoid taxing residential areas. "We wanted to avoid residential areas 'cause this was going to fund a business group," says Thomas, though he admits some residential buildings did get incorporated. "We had it loop around [to include] Wrigley Field 'cause, well, why not? The Cubs always said they wanted to be part of the community."
According to the ordinance, all property owners in the SSA are taxed at whatever rate it takes to yield a total of $131,500. If assessed property values rise, the tax rate falls; if they fall, the rate rises. To oversee the SSA, the ordinance established the Central Lakeview Special Service Area Commission, "consisting of twelve members, appointed by Mayor Daley," from "a list of nominees submitted by the Central Lakeview Merchants Association." In effect, Mayor Daley was allowing the Central Lake View Merchants Association to raise $131,500 a year in taxes to spend as it wanted. "I guess you can say it's another way Daley has of getting loyalty," says Thomas, who was one of the people Daley appointed to the commission. "But no one's complaining. We needed the money to run our organization, and the community needed the organization."
With the SSA established, Thomas figured the festival would be discontinued. "After all," he says, "it had served its purpose." But the other commission members pushed to have another festival in the summer of 1998, arguing that it was good for promoting the business district and for drawing people in. That irritated Thomas--the festival hadn't brought him any business. "If you want to know the truth, the festival hurt my business," he says. "It's like a Cubs game. Have you ever been in the neighborhood when people are walking to the game? They're, like, on a fucking mission--all they want to do is get to Wrigley Field and drink. Once they're done with their game it's not like they come out and spend money with us. They're drunk. With a festival, it's centered around music and beer, so it's sort of the same thing. They don't want to shop. They want to drink. They want to dance. It's never been great for a lot of merchants."
Moreover, Thomas says, there was nothing that distinguished their festival from all the others around the city, many of which follow a formula, with consultants coming in to oversee the details. "Most of the vendors are from outside the community," he says. "They bring in bands to play rock music. They sell tchotchkes. The big deal is selling the beer. You can make a few thousand dollars selling beer to twentysomething-year-olds wandering over from the Wrigley Field scene." He swears none of the other local businesses makes any more money than it would otherwise.
According to a source within the association who didn't want to be identified, the city allows seven local businesses to sell beer at the festival every year. "All told, everyone might sell, I don't know, $30,000 worth of beer over the course of the festival," he says. "Of course you have expenses. So it's good, but it's not great. I mean, no one's getting rich from the festival." Yet that hasn't stopped businesses from fighting over who gets to be one of those seven vendors.
In 1998 and early '99 Thomas peppered the association members and Liz Caldwell, the newly hired executive director, with memos and calls about what the association ought to be doing--especially about the festival, which he thought was consuming way too much of the association's time and energy. He suggested that they change the date because it rained too much in early June, bring in more local artists, have more kid-related acts. Or, preferably, just drop the whole thing. "Well, it's over and from the view of the public it was another successful Chicago Fest. From our view it was a little disappointing," began one memo after the 1998 festival. "We had a poor choice of date, we were up against St. Pats block party, Sheffield Garden Walk and the Tall Masted Ships (350,000 people visited Navy Pier this past weekend)."
His badgering irritated some of the others in the association. According to several members who refused to be identified, Thomas was a know-it-all, someone who always had to show everyone how smart he was, how he was right and they were wrong. They wanted a pat on the back for a job well done, but he couldn't stop criticizing--the ads were "muddy," the timing was bad, the income was falling, they could all do better. "I love Mark--I love him dearly, but you have to understand there's sort of a cultural clash between Mark and some of the members of the council," says one of them. "Mark is a very good businessman and a great entrepreneur, but he's a business guy with no partners. A businessman with no partners is like Fidel fucking Castro--he calls the shots. On the other hand, you have a lot of social-service types on that association. You have Norm [Groetzinger] from a social-service background, and he loves to debate. And you have Liz--I love Liz, but she'll talk about things until the cows come home. They'll say, 'Let's assign this to a subcommittee for more discussion.' Mark will be sitting there churning in his seat, and he'll say, 'I'm not going to three meetings to make one decision--let's do it now.' Everyone gets pissed at him. After a while you can't really blame them for getting sick of hearing him tell them how right he is and how wrong they are--even if he really is right."
Publicly, the association's leaders--Schuman, Hess, and Groetzinger--describe Thomas in measured terms. Questions are referred to Schuman, the group's president, who blames Thomas for making their meetings so long. "Every issue doesn't have to be contentious," he says. "Some people come with the attitude 'Let's get business done and get out of here. Let's come up with the best ideas--it doesn't have to be any one way.' But Mark is used to telling people what he wants and how he wants things done. There are many ways to skin a cat, not just one way."
"They don't understand me," says Thomas. "Do I raise my voice? On occasion. But I'm not that loud. But come on, who doesn't raise their voice from time to time? Am I emotional? OK, sometimes I vent. Sometimes I push my point. I can't believe it when people are doing something I know is wrong. But you know something? When it's over, it's over. I walk away. 'Let's have a drink.' These other people, they take it so personally."
In early 1999 Thomas left the association. "I didn't make a big deal about it," he says. "I resigned as vice president, and then I didn't renew my membership. I decided it's not productive for the association or me to be at their meetings and argue. They want to have their festival, let them have their festival. Let them run the association."
For two years he stayed away, but in 2001 he decided he wanted in again. "Why did I want to come back?" he says. "Business was starting to suffer on Belmont. After 9/11 everyone was hurting. I figured we needed a strong association to look out for things. That was the year when the association decided they were going to donate money for a homeless cause. Nothing against homeless causes, but what's a business group doing giving away money when businesses are getting hammered? We're not a social-service group--we've got to promote our community."
In the late fall of 2001 he sat down for lunch with Toia and Groetzinger. "I told him, 'Norm, I'd like to come back.' He looks up and says, 'I'm not sure people want you to come back, Mark.' I said, 'If they don't want me to come back I'll start another organization, 'cause something's got to be done.' He said, 'That's not very friendly.' I'm sure that from their perspective I was making a threat. But from my perspective that's not it at all. From my perspective I'm coming to you in peace, I've spent 45 minutes talking to him, and he says, what if nobody's interested? I'm saying, well, if you don't let me in I have to do something. That's not a threat. That's reality."
Eventually Thomas, who was convinced the association needed his input, filled out a membership application and sent in his membership fee. "I actually sent in six checks and six applications representing the six businesses I own in the area," he says. "Then at the January 2002 meeting I walked in, and Jim Schuman looks at me and says, 'Mark, we haven't accepted your membership, and our meetings are no longer open to you. You are no longer welcome here.' I just walked out."
A few days later, on January 12, Thomas received an unsigned registered letter at his office on Belmont from the association's executive committee. According to the letter, the committee had amended the association's bylaws to give the group's board the authority to consider an applicant's ability "to work in a positive and collegial manner in promoting the Central Lake View Merchants Association." In Thomas's case, the letter continued, "a recommendation was made to the full Board that your applications be denied....The full Board then voted on that recommendation and unanimously agreed that your applications be denied. We are, therefore, returning to you the applications and checks you had sent in to our organization. Any questions should be addressed to [our lawyer]."
Thomas was outraged. "I mean, who the hell are they to keep me from joining the organization I created? I sweated blood for that association. These guys send me that cold letter--which none of them had the balls to sign, I might add--because what? I didn't like the way they ran their festival? Well, I don't like the way they run their festival. Let's be honest--they're sacrificing the interests of most of the businesses in the area, for what? So seven guys with the beer licenses can sell beer? The festival was created to help make the SSA--now it's an end in and of itself. They use the tax money they generate from the SSA to keep their organization running so they can have their festival. I objected to that festival, and they froze me out."
After receiving the letter, Thomas met with Hansen, who was still the alderman. "Bernie tried to mollify me. He said, 'Why don't you write up your ideas, and I'll take them in? They can't say no to me, right?' I went home and I thought about it and I said, 'I'm not doing that. I'm not a 15-year-old kid."
Thomas stewed for a while, but in the fall of 2002 he again met with Hansen. "This time," Thomas says, "Bernie tells me, 'Mark, now's not the time to make this an issue.'" Hansen had announced that he was stepping down for health reasons and was supporting Tunney as his successor. "The aldermanic election was coming up in February," says Thomas. "Bernie told me that race was too important for me and the association to have a public fight--we had to have everyone get behind Tom." He agreed to back off.
In February, Tunney--with backing from Daley as well as Hansen--won. A few weeks after the election Thomas asked Tunney to intervene on his behalf with the association. "Tom said he'd do what he could do," says Thomas. "Then he tells me, 'Well, Mark, I talked to them, and here's the deal. They'll let you be a member, but you can't come to their meetings.' I'm thinking, What the fuck kind of deal is that? I said, 'Tom, I can't come to the meetings? That's an insult. Would you live with that?' He said no. For me, that was it. These guys are just messing with me."
In May, Thomas went public with an anti-association campaign, striking where he thought it would be most vulnerable--the festival. "A lot of people don't realize this," he says, "but it's illegal to charge people admission to a festival that's sponsored by a not-for-profit. You can ask for donations, but you can't charge admission. A lot of festivals fudge this. They have signs posted that say you only have to make a donation. But they also have narrow entrances, so the crowds are packed in. People just slap down their money without asking questions just to get inside."
Thomas started running ads on Q101. "We said, 'People going to music festivals, you know it's illegal to charge money to get in. They call it a donation. So if it's a donation you have the right to say no. So just say no.'"
On May 31, the day the two-day festival started, Thomas put 20-foot banners on the wall of the Alley that read "Don't bother paying--you don't have to."
"When he went after their baby, the festival," says one association member who asked not to be identified, "they were furious."
Association leaders wouldn't comment, but Charlotte Newfeld, a longtime Lakeview activist and close friend of Caldwell's, says she sees no reason the association should rush to welcome Thomas back. "When you've got someone who attacks you with big signs at your festival, it's difficult to ignore," she says. "I've known Liz Caldwell for years. She's a good person. She knows how to organize. She doesn't deserve this."
Toia would like to see both sides make peace. "Listen, I believe we should always work together," he says. "I have friends on both sides. I think Mark is a great man, and I think the members of the board are great people too. I think they should work together. If Mark wants to come back I support him 100 percent."
Curiously, Thomas remains on the SSA board, where he still meets with many of the people he sees as most antagonistic to him, including Groetzinger, Schuman, Hess, and Caldwell. Thomas doesn't at all like the current priorities of the board, which is controlled by the association. "I get the SSA budget, and I can't believe it," he says. "I'll give you an example--$25,000 for street beautification. What's that? They hired a 'planter consultant' to put in some fucking planters on Belmont. When they first suggested this I told them, What's with the potted plants? People will be using them for ashtrays. You should be working to clean up the streets, provide security. Do something for the businesses! I pay, what, eight hundred dollars a year in the SSA tax for my property in the area? So, OK, you say, that's not a fortune. But the SSA's been around for five years. So that's $4,500 I've had to pay. For the whole SSA area it's over 500 grand. That's real money. And guess what? The SSA's not going anywhere, my friend. We've paid five hundred fucking thousand dollars for what? Some planters? Don't you think people have the right to question how their tax dollars are spent?"
The budget for fiscal year 2003 shows that the $25,000 for street beautification paid for Christmas lights and lamppost banners as well as the planters. In addition the SSA board spent $17,000 on street maintenance. which paid for cleaning equipment and two part-time people who, among other things, empty trash cans, sweep the street, and shovel snow. Another $25,000 went for advertising and promotion, including the salary of a PR consultant, and nearly $60,000 went to other salaries, rent, and utilities.
If anyone in Lakeview has the power to bring Thomas and the association back together it's Tunney. "Just imagine how a real alderman--like Richard Mell--would handle this," says one longtime political observer. "He'd call everyone into a room and say, 'OK listen, assholes, you're giving me a fucking headache already. Settle this now!' But that's not Tunney's style."
It's hard to tell what Tunney thinks about the matter. "As far as Mark Thomas's involvement with the association, I know he was involved over the years, and I know he's not involved there now," he says. "There are some issues there, and I know they're working on keeping communication lines open--and that's my goal, because Mark is an important retailer in the community. So I wanna work with him, OK?"
Schuman says there's nothing to work out. He says that the association is running smoothly and that it's growing--according to Caldwell, it now has 100 members. "I don't believe my opinion about Mark Thomas is relevant to anything," Schuman says. "Mark resigned because he didn't agree with the direction the association was taking. Since then the association has moved on. When Mark reapplied for membership the board decided that because of his personal style it wasn't conducive to the way the board does its business. He wants to go out and do things now, and as an entrepreneur that's how you get things done. But in a business association you have a lot of members with their own ideas, and you have to sometimes compromise."
Schuman says this year's festival was a success, despite the crummy weather; Caldwell says the association took in around $20,000. "I think that most businesses in the community like the festival," says Schuman. "We've made changes. We moved it off Belmont--like Mark wanted--because we thought it was a difficult place to have it. It brings people into the neighborhood to see what the businesses are like."
Not surprisingly, Thomas has a different view of how well the association and its festival are doing. "They say they have 100 members and they're happy with that?" he says. "There are 400 businesses in the area. That means they only have 25 percent. During this year's festival I went and took a photograph of every single vendor in the festival, and there were only seven community vendors--the ones selling the beer. Seven! That's it. Everybody else is a carpetbagger from outside our community. What kind of organization is that? They should have someone going door-to-door to the businesses, saying, 'Hello, how are you? What are your problems? What can I do for you?' That's what they should be doing. Man, I'm getting fired up just thinking about this. The difference between a good association and a bad association is the board. North Halsted has a great board and therefore a great association. Central Lake View Merchants is wanting. I'm serious about starting a new organization. And you know what? I think I'm even gonna have my own festival next year when they have theirs. Sure--why not? I'll have my own bands, and I'll set up a grill and make some ribs and burgers. It will be great. You can come on over and pull up a lawn chair and watch."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.