Train car troubles

Chico Art Center leadership claim there’s more to Empire Coffee eviction

Dave Lawton helped the Chico Art Center buy the train car in 2001 and is still a regular volunteer.

Dave Lawton helped the Chico Art Center buy the train car in 2001 and is still a regular volunteer.


Last Saturday (April 11), a group of arts aficionados viewed the private troves of four notable local collectors during “Treasures of a Collection,” an annual fundraising event for the Chico Art Center. The main topic of conversation that afternoon wasn’t the works on the walls of the collectors’ homes, however, according to Jackie McClain, president of CAC’s board of directors, but instead involved the unrenewed lease for Empire Coffee, currently housed in a vintage train car owned by the organization.

“The thing we heard most that day was, ‘What’s the other side of the story?’” McClain said during a recent interview at the center. The questions were spurred by an April 8 article in the Chico Enterprise-Record about the center’s decision to not extend the lease for Empire Coffee owner Lindsay Brothers, which the CAC supporters claim didn’t tell the whole story.

“The implication of the article was very clear—that she had a thriving, successful business and that we are kicking her out to take it over,” said board member Sandra Flake. “In actuality, we had a bad landlord-lessee relationship [with Brothers], revenues have fluctuated a great deal and have been declining, and there’s been no significant growth in the three years she’s run it, although the economy has improved considerably.

“The truth is we wouldn’t have been likely to renew her lease to begin with.”

The CAC representatives said much of the flak they’ve felt over the Empire Coffee issue is based on misunderstandings about the center’s unique rental agreement with the city, and its history with the rail car.

“A big piece of misinformation is that we get this building for free,” McClain said, explaining the CAC spends $10,000 to $15,000 a year in expenses for the warehouse adjacent to the train car but does not pay rent. “We occupy this building in exchange for providing all internal maintenance including plumbing, electrical, air conditioning, security systems and service, trash and everything else that would normally be a landlord’s responsibility.”

Dave Lawton, a longtime Art Center volunteer who helped acquire and restore the 1947 Pullman coach in 2001, said the building was just a shell—and a city liability—that had been razed by fire twice before the center assumed responsibility. He noted the CAC converted the bare-bones building into a modern, Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant space.

The center purchased the train car with a combination of gifts, fundraising and a community block grant, with volunteers providing the labor. The group’s initial plan was to run its own coffee shop, but the board decided to rent it out when the restoration was completed in 2007, charging low rent—$575 monthly—in exchange for 3.5 percent of profits. It has been rented to three tenants in the past eight years, with Brothers taking control in 2012.

Brothers wrote to the CAC board last November to request renegotiation of the lease—including omitting the 3.5 percent profit-sharing altogether. She says she was shocked at the suddenness of the group’s decision: “I hadn’t heard from them since December and thought we were still negotiating when I got a very brief letter in March telling me the lease wouldn’t be renewed.”

The CAC reps said they responded to Brothers’ suggested changes with requests for clarifications that went unanswered, prompting them to examine the possibility of assuming control of the coffee business by forming a separate for-profit corporation. McClain said the city’s suggestion that they become more financially independent in the face of slashed arts funding also played a role in the decision.

“I really resent the implication this is motivated by greed,” McClain said. “None of us have anything to gain personally from this, except maybe a stable financial basis for this organization to keep operating.

“All of the public funding is gone and we’ve been charged to become self-sufficient,” she said. “We don’t expect that funding to come back; we understand the realities.”

If things continue as they are, the CAC will take over the train car on May 15. Brothers owns the fictitious name for Empire Coffee, and the CAC-run shop would have a new moniker.

Brothers also countered claims that Empire was losing money under her control, admitting business dropped in 2014 when she became a new mother, but noting 2013 was the coffee shop’s best year overall. She takes some responsibility for a breakdown in communications with the CAC, saying “both of us are equally responsible for why our business relationship needs improvement, and that’s still my goal.” She remains cautiously optimistic that an agreement is still possible.

“I’m still hoping for a win-win.”