Vele, a restaurant with a modern coastal Italian menu and trendy vibe, opened in downtown Springfield in November 2017. It occupies the former Café Brio space on the lower level of 524 E. Monroe and served as the anchor tenant for the Ferguson-Booth building project that initially began in 2012. However, with the first developer unable to complete the project and the property now in the hands of a New York-based bank that was turned down for tax increment financing (TIF) by the city council, the owners of Vele say there are too many unknowns to continue to operate in that space.
“As beautiful as that historic building is – and it’s such a great vibe for our space – it’s really been a thorn in our side due to upkeep,” said Nickey Sperry, who owns VELE along with her husband, Dan, and Justin Richardson, who also serves as executive chef. “We’ve had a lot of broken promises in regards to what’s going to happen with this building.”
Sperry said that the restaurant has had to close on more than one occasion due to issues with the HVAC, for example, and said a notice was recently posted on the restaurant’s window about property taxes that are due at the end of the month. “I’m not sure if our landlord is going to be able to pay them; I can’t speak to that,” said Sperry.
The Ferguson-Booth building project has been the subject of much discussion over the last few years, as first one developer and now another requested TIF money to help renovate the historic property.
Bright New Day Investments initially served as the developer, headed by Rick Lawrence, a Springfield-based general contractor, but the project stalled after it came to light that he had changed the scope of work to include a third building and incurred additional costs that hadn’t been approved by his lender, First Bankers Trust. The city council originally committed $3.8 million in TIF funds to the project, but paid out just under $1 million before rescinding the agreement. Meanwhile, Lawrence had continued work on the project in hopes of securing additional financing through his bank and incurred more than $1 million in expenses for union benefits and vendors. In 2018, several unions sued to recoup the benefits owed and First Banker’s Trust began foreclosure proceedings.
In 2019, First Banker’s Trust sold the mortgage to Chesterfield Faring, a real estate bank headquartered in New York. The new owners requested $3.15 million in TIF funds to finish the project, which now calls for 41 apartments and six commercial spaces among the three buildings. However, the city council rejected the request at its Aug. 25 meeting, citing concerns about Lawrence continuing to serve as a consultant, given the project’s history, and unanswered questions about ownership structure.
Sperry said even if the current owners find a way to move forward with the project, it doesn’t necessarily bode well for Vele. “If they did complete the three buildings, how would they accommodate our restaurant with the scaffolding?” she asked, noting that the upper stories need extensive work. “We have a lot of concerns regarding the situation. It would be a shame to stay in that space and suffocate ourselves.”
Sperry said the decision to leave downtown was not an easy one, and the three partners agonized for months. “We are 100% for the revitalization of downtown; always have been, always will be.” However, with American Harvest Eatery recently vacating its space at 3241 W. Iles Ave., Sperry said the group saw an opportunity to both improve and expand their space.
“Given COVID, spending money as a restaurant is not the wisest move right now. American Harvest fit our needs very well, and is rather turnkey, given the other available spaces,” she said. “We have to put the least amount of money into it, but it offers us more benefits such as a private dining space and larger kitchen.”
At just over 6,000 square feet, the space will be significantly larger than the downtown location, and Sperry said she is not concerned about the proximity to Curate, their other restaurant located in The Gables, citing menu items unique to each location.
“We’re actually hoping it will be helpful if we need to move people back and forth, or for the managers and owners to go between the two restaurants,” Sperry said.
The last day of operations downtown will be Sept. 26, and the new location is slated to open on Oct. 14. For now, the days and hours of operation will stay the same, although there are discussions about adding a Sunday brunch or dinner service for Monday and Tuesday evenings.
She said the staff is looking forward to having an expanded kitchen area, and even with the current dine-in restrictions, the larger space will be able to accommodate more customers than then downtown location can hold. Looking to the future, Sperry hopes the new space will also offer room for more growth.
“We all hope and pray we go back to some normal life, and when that happens, we can add some more tables in there,” she said.
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