The fate of the Pier Village Market at the corner of Mallery Street and Beachview Drive is up in the air, and many tenants are worried about their futures after the property was purchased by Sandy Vacation LLC.
“The property has closed, so there’s a new owner,” said Betty Ellis, the market’s property manager under the former owner and a tenant of one of the kiosks.
“They called me yesterday and said the tenants could stay as they are until the end of the year for right now,” Ellis said. “... The owners aren’t even sure what they’re going to do with the property. That’s about all I know. I mean, it’s a mess. My office is there, and I know about as much as everybody else.”
The property has been the subject of ligation since 2016, when former owner John Copeland filed a lawsuit against Village Holdings Associates LLC over an easement in the village market.
Ellis said a past owner of the lot built both the market and the building behind, which at the time housed Georgia Sea Grill. Both the market and the building are on separate lots.
An easement that ran through the middle of the market property — then a courtyard — allowed access to the then-restaurant building from Mallery Street, she explained. Copeland, doing business as GTI LLC, wanted to have the easement removed.
He ended up in Glynn County Superior Court with the owner of the former Georgia Sea Grill building, Village Holdings. Superior Court Judge Roger Lane ruled in Village Holdings’ favor in October 2017, and the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment in March, leaving the easement in place.
GTI LLC appealed to the highest authority, the Georgia Supreme Court, in April. Sometime during this period, Ellis said the Village Holdings property was purchased by Sandy Vacation LLC. Ellis said Sandy Vacation is owned by Philip Anschutz, a multimillionaire businessman who also owns the Sea Island Co.
While The News was unable to confirm whether that was the case, the Georgia Corporations Division’s website lists a principal office address located on Sea Island.
The Supreme Court approved Copeland’s request to withdraw the case on Monday, according to court records. The case had been in litigation for nearly three years, and Ellis said Copeland did not have high hopes for success in the Supreme Court.
The News was unable to confirm whether Sandy Vacation intends to purchase 314 Mallery St., the last lot needed for complete ownership of the block between Mallery Street and Fifteenth Street. Personnel at Dutchmans Designs said they had been told the property was already purchased or soon would be.
According to county records, 314 Mallery St. — which holds Dutchmans and Simons Gallery, Gifts and Antiques — has not changed hands.
It was just last week that the 15 business owners who rent kiosks in the village market heard the news: they had at least until the end of the year, and maybe a little longer, before they would have to move out.
While the owner has given no indication as to the plans for the property, five tenants who spoke to The News had little doubt the kiosks would be torn down.
Multiple tenants said they have been denied new leases for months, and have been paying rent month-to-month under their previous lease terms.
“I made a plea yesterday to try to get them a year,” Ellis said. “I think that could be accomplished, I’m not sure. That’s what I’d like to see. I’m sure at some point the kiosks will be torn down. My concern is the tenants are taken care of, that they can take a year to get their lives in order.”
When they finally got the official word, most of the tenants weren’t surprised.
“For a while, everybody kind of knew what was going on because we tried to re-up our leases,” said Jerry Nardell, owner of Jerry’s Doog House. “They were going ‘Oh, we’ll get it worked out later,’ or ‘We’ll figure something out later.’ When I found out it was multiple people, I knew something was up.”
Nardell, formerly a chef at Georgia Sea Grill, opened his hot dog shack in early 2018.
He was promptly shut down by the county because he didn’t have the right permits. Getting through the Islands Planning Commission and Glynn County Commission took months and a lot of resources on top of $10,000 or more he’d already sunk into the kiosk.
“So they put me $20,000 in the hole off the bat. I had no job, and I couldn’t go back to my old job,” Nardell said. “I’m 59 years old. This was going to be my last job.”
There were other signs Copeland was going to sell, Nardell said. Requested repairs never came. He pointed out several holes in the boardwalk around the market on Thursday and told The News about issues with the stairs in front of Sunset Slush’s kiosk.
When the stairs nearly fell apart, the tenants ended up fixing it themselves.
“It was almost like he (Copeland) was letting the place go because he knew he was going to sell,” Nardell said.
Nardell isn’t optimistic about the new owner. While the buyer wasn’t the Sea Island Co. itself, he didn’t see much difference. It’s especially hard to deal with, he said, because it’s not something he had any control over.
“When a company goes out of business quick, it’s usually because they had a bad product or they just didn’t work hard enough. This? I don’t have anything to do with this,” Nardell said.
“I know they want to improve St. Simons Island, but they’re not thinking about 15 other business owners.”
No other location on the island would support his type of business, a small hotdog stand.
“I’m just now starting to show some profit,” he said.
If he’s given through September of next year he might be able to make out alright, he said.
“The biggest question from my friends is ‘What are you going to do?’ So I turn it around on them. ‘What would you do if you just opened a business and someone bought it and you had to close down?’” Nardell said. “They say ‘I don’t know, I didn’t plan for that.’”
“This is something you see happening in a big city, where there’s millions of people, and some get lost in the shuffle. You don’t see stuff like this happening in a small community.”
Lee Cook, the owner of Eye Candy Shade Shack, was as much in the dark as everyone else.
A licensed optician by trade, Cook moved down from Virginia last year because it seemed like a good place to open a business like his and because St. Simons Island reminded him of home.
“That’s where I wanted to go,” Cook said. “Opening your own business from scratch, that’s a challenge. This is hard too.”
He’s been unable to renew his lease the same as the other tenants, going on a month-to-month basis. He also claimed — and was supported by another shop owner — that he’s been the one doing most of the maintenance on the property. All signs pointed to the property being sold.
“I read that as being, they don’t know what they can do until the owners decide,” Cook said.
As with Nardell, Cook felt it was a particularly hard blow because he may have to fold up due to no failure of his own.
“It’s kind of a David and Goliath story. The haves and have-nots,” Cook said.
He’s put $65,000 into the merchandise alone, not counting what he’s spent on maintenance. Another year, and he said he might be able to come out alright. He hasn’t even paid himself yet, he’s been working on building up inventory to get through the next year.
“This is not retirement for me. This is a full-time job,” Cook said.
Like Nardell, he said the market is the only place on St. Simons Island his business can flourish. Despite that, he said he recognizes the new owner’s right to do what they want with their property.
“Doesn’t mean I like it,” Cook said. “... This is all just business. Nothing personal. But we are these businesses, so it feels very personal.”
Despite all the little things they’ve noticed, both pointed out that the owners let people lease kiosks and open their shops here just three months ago, Cook said. One, Hara’s Spa, hasn’t even opened yet.
Martha Hawkins, the owner of Solely Southern Specialities, opened her shop in June, well into the course of the lawsuit.
“I’m devastated. I really enjoyed my store,” Hawkins said.
Jennifer Timmins, the owner of Golden Isles Bracelet Co., got the same message as everyone else. She has been trying to renew her lease since February.
She felt strongly enough about it to write a letter to the editor, which was published in the Thursday edition of The News.
“The fact of the matter is, these people do have the right to purchase this land and tear down these stores within the confines of the zoning ... I just really hope that they take into consideration the 15 small business owners and give us time because this was sprung on us,” Timmins said. “I’m not afraid of the change. I would just like some time.”
Should she and her husband have to close up the business, they would be able to move. However, it would be nearly impossible to find another place like the Pier Village Market.
“Retail space is limited,” Timmins said. “Especially small retail space for small businesses on St. Simons. We know from firsthand experience that the Golden Isles community wholeheartedly supports small business and understands the importance of small business in any community. I would like one more season in the village for my customers.”
Another year would also give the business owners enough time to let their customers know where they might be moving to.
“It was very sneaky,” Timmins said.
Her lease came up in March, but she said she has texts going back to February in which she was told a new lease was coming.
“We were misled. I have been told every single month, because I asked about it every single month, ‘Hey, where’s that lease?’” Timmins said. “‘Oh, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming.’”
In the end, she doesn’t doubt the kiosks will be demolished to make way for a new development.
Glynn County Community Development Department staff said they had not received an application for a demolition permit as of Thursday.
“I just hope whatever they put in there is cohesive to the character of the village,” Timmins said.
And it isn’t just the shop owners that are upset about the whole thing. Elizabeth Alix, a Jacksonville resident, said she likes to visit the shops on her regular trips to St. Simons Island.
“We have been coming down here for years, and we love this area because you have all these little small businesses who really care about what they do,” Alix said. “It’s sad.”