Como Park's Black Bear Crossings to close, but not without a fight

The longtime Como Park cafe says it will seek damages from St. Paul for breach of contract.

You might say that Black Bear Crossings won the battle but lost the war. And now it’s jumping back into the fray.

The longtime Como Park cafe and banquet vendor was vindicated a few weeks ago in its contract lawsuit against St. Paul, when a Ramsey County district judge ruled the business was eligible for damages over the city’s refusal to renew its lease at the Como Lakeside Pavilion for another five years. Judge Lezlie Ott Marek said the city had failed to prove it was “legally entitled” to do so.

But the judge also denied Black Bear’s request to have the lease extended. So owners Pam and David Glass have decided to take their attorneys’ advice to not fight it. They will close Black Bear on Dec. 31, when the current lease ends.

“Am I happy with that? No, not at all,” said David Glass, who added that he and his wife haven’t yet figured out what they’ll do once they move out of the Como pavilion, where they operate a year-round cafe and run a wedding and event business.

In the meantime, they will seek damages from St. Paul for breach of contract, first through mediation and then in court next year, if necessary.

On Monday, they will add another allegation to their case against the city: defamation of character.

“The judge ruled that the statements that city officials made in the press after we sued harmed Black Bear,” Glass said. “We lost customers because of that. It damaged our reputation as individuals and as a business.”

St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing declined to comment on Black Bear’s latest claim, but said that the city will oppose the Glasses’ efforts to seek damages.

“We obviously disagree with the judge’s ruling, but the judge also said that Black Bear Crossings isn’t entitled to stay in the pavilion indefinitely,” Grewing said. “We’re really looking at this as an opportunity to look toward the future and what we can provide St. Paul in that space.”

Black Bear Crossings took over the pavilion in 2000 when the city decided to contract out the business. The parties agreed in 2009 on a lease that ran for five years and could be renewed by the business with proper notice, which Black Bear gave last year.

The city responded that it needed to first review how Black Bear was performing and whether improvements were in order. It followed up with requests for financial records.

Last fall, the city told Black Bear that it had decided not to extend the lease because it wasn’t making enough money.

Based on Como’s annual 4.4 million visitors and the business done by similar Minneapolis park vendors, city officials said Black Bear should be able to do $500,000 in sales in 2014 and $750,000 in 2015. But they said Black Bear had brought in only about $250,000 in revenue for the preceding year, a figure that Glass said was low.

While St. Paul gets no cut of Black Bear’s annual sales, city officials said they wanted to provide better service and draw more visitors to Como. They also claimed Black Bear had breached its contract by missing deadlines for rent payments, records and invoices.

Black Bear responded by filing a suit against the city to enforce the contract, saying that the city’s proposed sales figures had “no basis in reality.” Glass said that St. Paul wanted a flashier vendor, such as Sea Salt in Minnehaha Park, and accused the city of racism. Glass is Ojibwe.

In her ruling for Black Bear, Marek noted that while payments and records were late, they were eventually provided and therefore did not constitute a breach under the terms of the contract.

Grewing said a city online survey on ideas for the Como pavilion drew 744 responses before closing last week. She said the city was preparing to solicit proposals from vendors for future use of the pavilion.

Whatever happens from here, it is clear that the end of the year will also bring the end of a 14-year relationship between the city and Black Bear. Glass said that saddens him.

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