The good vibes that soaked the White Buffalo Saloon in Sarasota after country rocker Jo Dee Messina recently played a gig there masked a not-so-good history.
The country-western-themed bar and restaurant, actually, almost never had a history. That's because owner Mike Evanoff, who has run a half-dozen local hospitality and entertainment businesses for 15 years, nearly abandoned the project during a contentious three-month battle with Sarasota County over impact fees. Those fees are taxes municipalities levy to cover a broad range of services, including roadwork near the property, water and sewer lines.
Evanoff eventually overcame the roadblocks, but the price was costly, both financially and emotionally. And now, a year after the battle and six months after White Buffalo opened, Evanoff is a reluctant poster child for an entrepreneur's worst nightmare: A lengthy and expensive battle with a local government over opening or expanding a business.
Despite the difficulty, Evanoff, 40, says he wants to stay positive and look ahead. Not only that, Evanoff worries a critical look back at the episode will bite him, if and when he seeks to grow in Sarasota again. “The biggest fear I have is fear of retribution,” from the county over future projects, says Evanoff. “Every developer in this town has fear of retribution.”
Evanoff declined to elaborate on a specific incident of a county employee who got back at a business owner. But Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta has heard the same worry from local businesses — a fear or retribution after a complaint about a difficult experience with a county office or employee. Barbetta says he and other commissioners have spoken to County Administrator Randall Reid about this issue, and everyone at the top agrees if it's happening, it's not good.
“It shouldn't be that way,” Barbetta says. “If that's the case, we want to weed that out.”
The adversity Evanoff faced with White Buffalo lies largely in an initial impact fee of $230,146 that was slashed to about $90,000. The entire experience left Evanoff bitter and puzzled.
Indeed, Evanoff wonders why a $2 million project that provides 80 jobs, adds a property to the tax rolls and offers a new destination for locals and visitors was such a struggle. “They 'yes, yes, yes' you, but don't change anything,” Evanoff told the Business Observer in July 2012. “It makes me want to throw up.”
Barbetta says the White Buffalo saga was an “unfortunate situation.” That's true, adds Barbetta, not only for Evanoff but also for any other current or would-be business owner who doesn't have the fortitude, and wallet, to stick it out and fight. “Are there other people out there saying Sarasota is a tough place to do business in?” asks Barbetta. “If so, we need to address that.”
Sarasota County spokesman Curt Preisser, in an email response to questions about impact fees and Evanoff, says the county “has been very proactive when it comes to business development and job creation.”
Still, Barbetta and some other commissioners know there's a sentiment among the local business community that there are county employees who slant anti-business. Commissioner Christine Robinson, for one, talked about it during her successful reelection campaign in 2012.
“I think it's substantially improved, and I think the culture is changing,” says Barbetta. “I'm not going to say we are there yet, but it's better.”
The White Buffalo Saloon, meanwhile, started out simple, not battle ready.
The idea was to turn the former ASAP Enterprise equipment rental building on McIntosh Road into the White Buffalo. Evanoff and his father and business partner, Steve Evanoff, paid $595,000 for the 11,700-square-foot building in November 2011, according to Sarasota County property records.
The Evanoffs, who bought the building in a liquidation auction, sought to add a country-western bar to their business portfolio for several years. The family already runs four Evie's Taverns, including two in Manatee County. They also own a driving range and a mini-golf facility, a valet parking service, a limousine company and a car wash. The combined operations have about 300 employees. Mike Evanoff declines to disclose annual sales.
Evanoff chose the ASAP building for several factors. Price and location, near the Bee Ridge Road Evie's, were some of the top reasons. But that prudence was bruised when Sarasota County assessed Evanoff with the $230,146 impact fee bill. The assessment, say some local developers, was unusually high, especially considering the building isn't on a major thoroughfare and it was previously an industrial warehouse.
“I was like a man with a head ready to explode,” says Evanoff, who sometimes wears Bob Marley and Willie Nelson T-shirts to work, “when I heard my impact fees were going to be $230,000.”
Those fees also had significant financial consequences, says White Buffalo manager Jordan Valenza, who has worked for Evanoff since 2009. Valenza says the general revenue-to-profit ratio for the nightclub and bar industry is three-to-one, so the White Buffalo needs to sell $3 for every $1 of profit.
A $230,000 impact fee on top of that, says Valenza, would be insurmountable. “It would have been a business-ending event,” Valenza says. “It was so outrageous.”
Evanoff went on a campaign of phone calls, emails and meetings, some public, some private, to facilitate a change. A county official, Evanoff says, suggested a meeting with the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County for help. Evanoff says the person at the EDC, which isn't a county agency, directed him back to the same person at the county.
That was a low point in the process, says Evanoff, who thinks EDC and county officials are more responsive when recruitment of a technology or bioscience business is at stake. “All I got was a big circle,” says Evanoff. “There was no help for me.”
Evanoff hired prominent local land use attorney Dan Bailey and Joel Freedman, a leading land planning consultant, to help plead his impact fee case before county commissioners. Freedman has worked for the Evanoffs on several projects, including the family's first local business, the driving range, in 1997.
Freedman says the White Buffalo process was certainty painful, but it was also illuminating, in that it crystallized the issue for county officials: Do you want jobs and a pro-business message, or do you want to suffocate an entrepreneur with impact fees?
“It made everyone aware of what the Evanoffs wanted to do,” Freedman says. “It helped the community understand that these guys are job creators, these guys are employers.”
County officials say impact fees are based on a pre-determined formula, which is what Evanoff was first told when he questioned the figure. Yet Sarasota County, much like several other Gulf Coast counties, has cut and waived a variety of impact fees in recent years in an attempt to encourage development in the downturn.
The ultimate result in the White Buffalo case was a compromise between the county and Evanoff. First, the county cut about $70,000 from the initial $230,146 bill.
Evanoff then cut the number of seats in the White Buffalo from 180 to 150. That lowered the fee to about $90,000. Bailey argued with the commission for more cuts, which brought it down to $50,000. But other fees brought the final total impact fee bill to $88,440.
The conflict, in the end, saved Evanoff $141,706 in fees.
The fight ended last September, when Evanoff got his permits and got going on the $1.5 million project.
The White Buffalo, with free weekly line dancing lessons, a high-tech jukebox and a 1,000-square-foot center stage, held a soft opening in November and a grand opening Jan 12. Jo Dee Messina played to a sold-out crowd, 1,000 people, May 10, and country singer-songwriter Phil Vassar is scheduled to perform later this summer.
Along the way the White Buffalo has picked up that most elusive element for a new restaurant: positive buzz. “Our core nights,” says Valenza, the manager, “are extremely strong.”
Evanoff hopes to keep the Friday-Saturday momentum going, while also creating new ways to draw customers on slower nights. Evanoff grew up in Massachusetts, and played hockey and soccer at North Adams College, which is now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Three ankle surgeries derailed any hopes of a pro hockey career, and after a brief stop at a sales job in Atlanta, Evanoff and his family moved to Sarasota in 1997.
The list of Evanoff businesses grew steadily. “Over time we just kept adding on things,” says Evanoff. “The more we did, the more we wanted to do.”
Yet looking ahead, with the White Buffalo experience fresh, Evanoff is no longer sure how much more he wants to do. He would like to open another bar and restaurant, not a fifth Evie's Tavern and not a country-western theme. But he stops short of committing to another project.
“I love Sarasota and I love being in business,” says Evanoff. “Even though I've had a lot of struggles and challenges, I'm grateful for all the people who supported me.”
In an email to the Business Observer, Sarasota County spokesman Curt Preisser explains how impact fees were assessed for the White Buffalo project:
• May 24, 2012 - Staff provided a preliminary estimate of impact fees for the proposed White Buffalo Saloon on McIntosh Road. The initial development plan called for the conversion of an existing construction equipment rental business to a 186-seat restaurant and a 53-seat lounge. The preliminary combined estimate calculated by staff was based upon the initial submittal and totaled approximately $230,146. This estimate included utility capacity fees, utility line extension fees and road impact fees only.
• Utility staff research led to information that allowed utilities staff to waive the utility line extension fee. This reduced the utility portion of the calculation by $65,435. The road impact fees calculated by Public Works staff already included a credit of $22,816 for the prior warehouse use. The revised total for utility capacity fees and road impact fees totaled $156,830.
• June 12, 2012 - Staff met with the developer to seek out any additional detail relating to the proposed land use. As a result of that meeting Public Works staff was able to determine that the road impact fee rate could be based on the type of restaurant, a “drinking place,” that is open for night business only. This resulted in a further reduction of $18,430 for the road impact fee.
• June 14, 2012 - The applicant revised the proposed development plan to reflect 150 bar seats and no restaurant service. This reduced the utility capacity fee by $68,390 for a total of $30,472 for utilities.
The grand total of $88,440 was determined for all fees including roads, utilities, fire, EMS, general government, justice and law enforcement.