Stung by an eminent domain case that's enabled the city of Eagan to condemn his building, the owner of Mediterranean Cruise Cafe says he plans to move his popular business to downtown Burnsville.
But Eagan city officials say they've been trying hard to find a new site for the cafe. They even offered owner Jamal Ansari a prime spot on Cliff Road, formerly used by Baker's Square. It's a bigger building with good access and visibility from Interstate 35W.
"We do value his restaurant and have always considered him an asset," said Tom Hedges, Eagan city administrator, adding that Eagan's economic development director has spent a "tremendous amount of time" trying to relocate Ansari's cafe. "We hope that he'll stay," Hedges said.
"That's not going to happen," said Ansari, who opened his restaurant 28 years ago after emigrating from Jerusalem.
"If we don't feel welcome, why stay?" Ansari said in an interview at his cafe, acclaimed not only for ethnic cuisine but also as the metro's biggest venue for belly-dancers.
He was honored, Ansari said, when Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz recently invited him to relocate as an anchor in the Heart of the City, next to the $20 million Performing Arts Center that is under construction.
"When the right place welcomes you, you've got to go," he said. "We're going to take this charming business and this good food and go to the Heart of the City in Burnsville and make the best of it."
Ansari is among several business owners who unsuccessfully challenged the Eagan Redevelopment Authority's use of eminent domain to take the land. Dakota County Judge Michael Mayer ruled April 18 that the city had the right to take the land for a public purpose.
The land along Hwy. 13 at Cedar Avenue is part of a wider 60-acre site that will become a transitway, affordable and senior housing, offices, restaurants and shops. Mayer said the redevelopment will create a bigger tax base, more jobs and infrastructure to correct traffic problems.
Still mulling an appeal to the Minnesota Court of Appeals are owners of Larson Automotive, Precision Engine, and a U-Haul store.
Jerry Larson, owner of Larson Automotive, said he owns his building but may have to borrow against it to pay his attorney after a long battle.
"The city has put me into a financial pinch," he said as he gazed out his shop window toward a giant pile of crushed rubble that was once the Cedarvale Shopping Center. "It's a bad situation when you own your own building and have it paid off, and you have to go to the bank and borrow money just to keep it."
Eagan hired a relocation consultant to help these owners and others who are affected. Three court-appointed commissioners will determine the fair market value of their parcels. So far, Eagan has relocated more than 30 businesses.
Ansari, who said he attended dozens of meetings and hearings over the condemnations, said he's done fighting.
He has more than $1 million in financing to build a restaurant twice as big as his current family-run cafe, he said. Depending on how well he does at the new site, his staff could grow from 35 workers to 80 or 90, Ansari said.
He toyed with the idea of moving to Burnsville but didn't make up his mind until after Kautz came by with Sen. John Doll, DFL-Burnsville.
So Ansari has been working with Burnsville officials on plans to build along Nicollet Avenue just south of County Road 13. The design calls for 180 to 220 seats and an expansion from his current 3,200 square feet to 6,500 to 7,000. The Baker's Square building he rejected is 5,300 square feet and needs upgrades.
Ansari hopes to begin construction in August and finish next March.
"He has a beautiful architectural rendering of the restaurant that he wants to bring to Burnsville, and it really is going to add great value to our city," Kautz said. "It's going to be two stories, and it's going to be pedestrian friendly."
The mayor said she likes that the cafe would serve international cuisine in a community that is "eclectic and diverse. It adds a different dimension to our city, and it's going to be welcomed."
These days, there's excitement at the Mediterranean Cruise Cafe, where the aromas of spices waft, colorful tapestries of Arabian knights hang and soft lights glow.
"We are proud to see a mayor come and invite us to do business in her city," Ansari said as he looked over his building plans, pausing to greet loyal patrons by name.
One was Sgt. 1st Class Alex Remington with the Army Reserve at Fort Snelling. Would he follow Ansari?
"Absolutely," he said. "The food is great. Awesome. The service is great. It's all-around a tremendous experience. It would be a shame if they have to close it."
Joy Powell • 952-882-9017