With today’s story on the potential closing of Johnny’s Lunch Box at Sheridan and Walker, questions are renewed about the intentions of the property’s owner, Nick Preftakes. Last night discussion of this story led to an unfortunate exchange via Twitter about “hearing rumors.” So let’s delve into all this. For the past few years Preftakes has been buying up the block bordered by Main Street, Hudson, Sheridan and Walker Avenues and for the most part letting them stay empty (everything he’s bought on Main Street) or running on auto-pilot (like One North Hudson, historically known as the Black Hotel).
Nick is a businessman. He’s not sentimental. He’s respected for knowing the difference between buying “retail” and “wholesale.” Usually Nick always buys “wholesale” – meaning he’s no fool in the real estate game. But when it came to buying out much of this block, truth be told, he’s definitely paid some retail prices. So when he first began his buying spree, which occurred at a time when Devon Energy’s plans for a headquarters across the street was not a secret, his explanation that he was buying the land as “an investment” was laughable. It was also a curious matter that Preftakes was seemingly quite able to sit on $14 million or more for four years and counting.
But he wasn’t able to buy everything on the block. The city owns, and fully occupies, the largest building on the block, 420 W Main. He also has yet to buy nearby Pizza Town or Coney Island Hot Dogs. And most elusive of all was the Union Bus Station. As I’ve noted previously, it was also odd that when Preftakes bought the Auto Hotel at 17 N Hudson, he ended a contract with Republic Parking and closed it down. He said he wasn’t in the parking business. That response came off as odd to those who know Preftakes as a man who is in the business to make money (he later reopened the garage when Devon shut down the City Center West Garage as part of an expansion, creating a shortage of parking for the area).
It was at an October, 2009 meeting of the Downtown Urban Design meeting where Preftakes sought to demolish a rather unremarkable building at 419 W Sheridan, next to the Lunch Box, that he fessed up – a bit. Preftakes confirmed for the first time he is preparing to redevelop the block and that he wanted to acquire the Union Bus Station before taking that next step. Then, a few months ago, owners of the bus station announced they were shutting down operations and yes, the property might be sold. So far, however, so sale has been recorded at the county.
Preftakes has repeatedly declined to say whether Devon Energy has any involvement in his development plans (note I also made no headway in getting a clear answer on this matter from Devon Energy Executive Chairman Larry Nichols). Also note that during that urban design meeting in 2009 Preftakes was accompanied by a Devon attorney. When asked about why she attended, the attorney responded she was there as an interested neighbor. I’ve reported most of this in the past, but it’s important to put all of this into perspective.
Now let’s consider yet another detail – the new Devon Energy wellness center on the second floor of the company’s new and expanded garage that overlooks Main Street. The wellness center is designed so that dozens of employees exercising on treadmills, stair-stepping machines and stationary bicycles are doing so looking out onto the mostly vacant, haggard-looking buildings along Main Street now owned by Preftakes. So ask yourselves – would Devon really design this sort of view (a wide expanse of windows no less) without having any control over the surrounding area or at least an idea that the view would soon change?
Also consider just how much the Myriad Gardens make-over has improved the immediate area, and how a new downtown elementary will be built across from the Union Bus Station.
Are we getting a picture yet? Nick has done some impressive mixed-use development both locally and elsewhere. He knows how to do adaptive re-use of old buildings. He also knows how to tear down a building and replace it with offices, housing or retail. He knows how to do urban development. So when you hear about “rumors” concerning Nick Preftakes and this block, with everything I’ve shared, at this point a picture must emerge ….
I don’t deal in rumors. I deal with what I know, and I’m only going to share what I know. And now I’ve done just that….
Is Shawnee, with a population of just under 30,000, a “larger city”?
I think the world of Oklahoma Watch, the non-profit news venture that partners up with The Oklahoman, Tulsa World and other news outlets around the state on in-depth public interest stories.
A story in today’s Oklahoman, which isn’t online (UPDATE: read it here), about a task force led by Rep. David Dank examining whether to cut back or eliminate historic tax credits takes an assumption by Dank and treats it as fact: that these tax credits primarily benefit larger cities like Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
To those of you associated with Main Street programs around the state, to those of you in the preservation community, I’d advise this is something you’ll want to watch carefully.
A few back I was lucky enough to get to travel around the state, visiting with Main Street business owners from Poteau to Miami to Stillwater. I personally saw examples of treasured, yet neglected Main Street properties brought back to life with the help of these tax credits. If these credits are limited to the major cities, then please explain that definition as it applies to Shawnee (where tax credits helped on renovating the Aldridge Hotel) and in Muskogee (the Surety Apartments).
Maybe these tax credits are good, maybe they’re bad. But a look at the facts will show these tax credits have been used quite a bit in small town Oklahoma.
The Rock Cafe in Stroud was destroyed by fire – you can see all the stories, photos and videos at www.newsok.com. But this is how I want to remember the landmark – a place where a group of Norwegians become instant friends with bikers from Hawaii. They gathered at the Rock Cafe because it reminded them of the America that’s continuing to disappear either to fires, floods, the deaths of their owners or the unabated explosion of big box retail and architecture.
I took my boys to the Jenks Acquarium during spring break and had to decide whether to take them to the Rock Cafe or another Route 66 landmark, Ollies. I chose Ollies, where they had a great time. But it’s a bittersweet decision for me now – they’re big fans of the movie “Cars” and those napkin sketches by the Pixar guys are gone forever, as is the uniqueness of the building itself.
Here’s what I wrote last summer during a tour of Route 66:
The flow of customers seems endless at Dawn Welch’s Rock Cafe in Stroud. Welch has become a celebrity, thanks to last year’s hit animated movie “Cars.” Wallis, an adviser on the Route 66 tribute movie, voiced the sheriff’s character, while the role of town booster “Sally” was inspired by Welch’s determination to make her restaurant and town standouts on the Route 66 map.
Whenever Wallis makes a stop at the Rock Cafe, he calls ahead. Beverly Thomas, the cafe‘s manager, appreciates the warning, because they always have to make an Oatmeal Pie (a “poor man’s pecan pie”) for Wallis to bring back home.
“She’s a good little business woman … Dawn really knows how to run that business and get people in there,” Wallis said. “And when I say gimmick, I don’t mean gimmicky; I don’t mean it in a negative sense. I mean it in a smart business sense”
Wallis calls Welch’s Rock Cafe an example of a classic Route 66 success story, calling her business “authentic, genuine and unpredictable.”
Notes from the road:
Every inch of the restroom in the ancient Rock Cafe is covered with graffiti. Seemingly all of it is free of any obscenities or hatred — just good natured greetings and sign-offs by travelers leaving their mark. At Waylan’s KuKu in Miami, one sees the last surviving restaurant of a burger chain that boasted 200 locations. The restaurant is designed to resemble a kuku clock, and its owner is on the job throughout the day. Children delight at carrying off meals in boxes designed to look like classic cars from the 1950s.
“That unpredictable factor is what separates it from what is very predictable: that super-slab a few miles over,” Wallis said. “It’s my least favorite ride from Oklahoma City to Tulsa, where you are literally separated from the ecology of the land and you might as well be riding on a runway.”