Cayuga County is once again accepting bids on the exclusive contract to cater events at the Emerson Park Pavilion.
But the county's request for proposals has become the latest in a series of controversies related to that contract.
The county is accepting bids for the next term of the contract, which will cover the years 2022 through 2024, until Jan. 22. However, because the RFP includes a mandatory pre-bid meeting that took place Jan. 8 at the pavilion, the only qualified candidate is the only caterer who attended that meeting: A&M Catering, the current holder of the contract.
That means at least two local caterers who considered submitting bids are now on the outside looking in — one more than the other.
Bernie Simmons, owner of Balloons Restaurant and co-owner of A.T. Walley & Co. in Auburn, said Wednesday that he wasn't contacted by the county when the RFP was issued Dec. 9. So he didn't know about the meeting, he said. And Sean Lattimore, owner of the Springside Inn in Fleming, said he was contacted by the county. But because he never received a response to a follow-up question — he wanted to know who currently holds the contract — he didn't attend the meeting because he didn't have the information he needed to decide whether to submit a bid.
Lattimore didn't know who currently holds the contract because the county Legislature voted on Sept. 24 to reassign it to A&M from its holder since 2012, H&J Hospitality. The Ithaca company beat out Lattimore and Simmons for the opportunity to cater at the historic pavilion when it reopened that year after a $4.5 million renovation. Simmons considered suing the county over the decision, arguing that H&J President Jamie Ciaschi should have disclosed that he filed for bankruptcy a few years prior. The county responded that because the bankruptcy was personal, it wasn't relevant.
The contract initially covered the years 2012 through 2015. Ciaschi obtained extensions covering 2016 through 2018, and then 2019 through 2021. But H&J, which also owned Joe's Restaurant in Ithaca since 2005 and the Lansing Events Center since 2018, went out of business late last summer. So the company's longtime operators at the pavilion, Andrea and Michael Gavigan, of Auburn, formed A&M and asked the county to reassign the contract — essentially keeping the same people in charge of booking and catering events there. A&M became the holder of the contract Dec. 1.
Both Lattimore and Simmons praised the Gavigans. Lattimore said they "have always done a very nice job, and I have the utmost respect for both of them."
But for Simmons, both the reassignment and the RFP continue what he feels is a pattern of mismanagement that began when the county first awarded the contract to H&J.
"It could have been so much more," he said of the pavilion. "People have lost out for 10 years."
The county couldn't explain why Simmons wasn't contacted about the RFP.
It was issued by the county's purchasing department, whose director, Donald Carr, said Thursday that he notified four caterers about the RFP. The department also posted it on BidNet Direct, where all the county's bid opportunities are posted. Carr declined to identify the caterers he notified so as not to tamper with an open RFP. Because neither a commodity nor public works are being bid on, he said, the department can follow its own RFP guidelines per state law. For that reason, the department was not required to notify the public of the RFP in any other ways, such as a legal notice.
Still, the county wanted to notify anyone who might be interested in catering at the pavilion, said Gary Duckett, superintendent of buildings and grounds, and Doug Dello Stritto, director of parks and trails. Both provided Carr with the names of potential candidates before he issued the RFP, they said. Dello Stritto said the list included four or five local names and four or five national ones. Simmons, having submitted a bid for the first RFP in 2010, "would have" been on that list, Dello Stritto continued. So he couldn't explain why the Balloons owner ultimately wasn't notified.
The three county officials were "shocked" when only A&M Catering attended the mandatory pre-bid meeting at the pavilion, Duckett said. As a result, A&M is now the only caterer who qualifies for the contract. The company would have grounds for legal action if the county chose a candidate who didn't attend the meeting, which was scheduled to give everyone the same answers to any questions and make sure they see the building in person before submitting bids. If the county does receive any other bids it wants to consider fairly, Duckett said, it would have to issue another RFP.
But Simmons believes another RFP should have been issued already — when H&J Hospitality went out of business.
"How as a county do you hand over a half a million dollar business to two kids who have limited experience in the business?" he said. "It's a tough pill to swallow."
Simmons questioned whether the county was legally able to reassign the catering contract from H&J to A&M. However, Cayuga County Attorney Christopher Palermo said it indeed was: H&J's contract with the county says that in the event the company can no longer meet its obligations, it can nominate a successor. H&J must then work with that nominee and the county to ensure a "smooth transfer" of services. And as the people who have been providing those services for years, the Gavigans offered the county the smoothest transfer possible, Palermo said.
"They've been the local face of that place for several years," he said.
Duckett added, "I believe the transition has been seamless for us, and for the people who've had events scheduled."
Andrea Gavigan, who's been booking reservations at the pavilion since H&J began catering there in 2012, felt the same way. Several brides are planning weddings there this year and next, Gavigan said, and they've all been working with her. Awarding the contract to another company could have disrupted those bookings, she continued, and maybe even cost the county some of them.
That's why Andrea and Michael, her husband, approached the county in the fall about reassigning the contract to A&M. And that's why the two hope to continue catering at the pavilion after 2022.
Michael manages A&M's operations, including its staff of 25 during the peak season from May through November. He's lived in Auburn for eight years, while Andrea is a native. So the 90-year legacy of Emerson Park and its pavilion — amusement rides, community dances — is not lost on them. Nor is the perception that the building has become ostensibly closed to the public, unless they book it, since H&J began catering there in 2012. To both those ends, the Gavigans plan to host a Return to the Lake Dance in May. It will include a live band, food trucks and more.
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"A whole community event where they can come into the ballroom and dance like they did 40 years ago," said Andrea, who worked as a corporate events coordinator in Chicago before joining H&J.
Depending on how the May dance does, A&M will host more public events, the Gavigans said. Since 2019, the contract has required its holder to host two concerts a year.
"We're just very happy to be here, and we want to serve the community the most that we possibly can," Michael said. "I've grown to love this community."
Dances were among several possibilities for the pavilion floated by H&J Hospitality since 2010.
Others included a conference center, dinner-and-a-show packages with the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse at the park, a concession stand and a seasonal restaurant. But none of those possibilities came to fruition under H&J and Ciaschi. Although the Gavigans operated the pavilion for the company, they said any decisions about hosting public events rested with the company's president.
Simmons accused the county of not holding the out-of-town caterer accountable on those promises.
"He didn't care about Cayuga County or the people of Cayuga County or Auburn. He was just in it for his own gain," Simmons said. "That's the thing that crushes me."
Ciaschi couldn't be reached for comment. H&J's website redirects to A&M's, and the phone at the Lansing Events Center is disconnected. Joe's Restaurant, meanwhile, is under new management.
Public events weren't the only promise Ciaschi failed to keep, either. When the county awarded the contract to H&J in 2010, he projected that annual catering proceeds at the pavilion would increase to $1.5 million by 2015. The contract required H&J to pay 10% of those proceeds as rent to the county in 2012, and 12% from 2013 on. It also required a minimum rent of $50,000 in 2012, and about $1,500 more each subsequent year. Still, $1.5 million in proceeds would have meant $180,000 a year to the county, compared to about $75,000 in the years prior to the pavilion's renovation.
According to past Cayuga County budgets, though, proceeds didn't increase like Ciaschi projected. H&J's rent to the county peaked at $81,550 in 2014, followed by roughly $80,000 the next two years, $58,280 in 2017 and $57,990 in 2018. Half of that rent went to the county's general fund, and the other half to a capital account for maintaining the pavilion.
In 2019, H&J began paying a flat rent instead of a percentage, beginning at $90,000. The company only paid $32,000 of that rent through December, the Cayuga County Treasurer's Office said. Palermo said the county is taking ownership of some equipment H&J left at the pavilion to make up the deficit. Otherwise, the treasurer's office said, the company does not owe the county any debt.
A&M paid $3,500 in rent for December, and $7,500 for January, the treasurer's office said. The new company will assume the same rent schedule as H&J — $92,000 this year, $94,000 next year — and continue paying utilities at a rate of 6% of proceeds. A&M did not have to assume any of H&J's liabilities, including the rent it owes the county, the reassignment document says.
A&M is also bound to a condition of H&J's most recent contract extension: It cannot extend the contract again, but rather must submit a bid through an RFP. Palermo said that condition was added to the extension, along with the two concerts a year, to ensure the pavilion is being operated in the best interest of both the county and the public. And while Duckett acknowledged the criticism that taxpayers could only access the county-owned building by paying to book it, he said he "never had any complaints" about H&J from those who worked with the company.
"There was one instance where someone got cut off at the bar," he said. "But people were happy with the food, and with the service."
Less forthcoming was the Emerson Foundation. Along with about $750,000 from the county, the foundation invested $3.5 million renovating the pavilion at the park its namesake, Fred L. Emerson, donated to the county in 1944. Members of the foundation also sat on an advisory committee that unanimously recommended the county award the catering contract to H&J.
In an email, however, Executive Director Dan Fessenden declined to comment on the foundation's level of satisfaction with H&J's performance at the pavilion.
Regardless, the foundation won't have a say in the RFP this time. The decision is solely Cayuga County's to make.
After the Jan. 22 bid deadline, candidates will be interviewed and the county Legislature will deliberate before awarding the 2022-2024 contract March 1, according to the current RFP schedule.
Legislature Chair Aileen McNabb-Coleman would like to see the deadline extended, though. The Ways & Means Committee will weigh the possibility at its meeting Tuesday, she said. If the deadline is extended, she believes the list of qualified candidates would no longer be limited to those who attended the mandatory pre-bid meeting Jan. 8.
McNabb-Coleman, who represents the district containing Emerson Park and was herself married at its pavilion, said an extension is the right thing to do given the current status of the RFP.
"I'd love to have so many (candidates) that we can barely wrap our arms around it," she said, calling the park "the gem of this part of the county."
McNabb-Coleman added, "I'm not saying the current operators aren't doing well, but this is just a great opportunity to see what's out there and do our best by the park and by the taxpayers."
Lattimore hopes that extension happens. As the owner of a local business, he'd like to see the county act in his best interest, too. Although it saves money by not booking the pavilion itself, as it did before 2012, the county has been costing local businesses by mismanaging the catering contract the way it has, Lattimore said. He believes a historic gem calls for a higher standard.
"There's a competitive advantage over there — competition from our own county. They make these decisions in what seems like a rush," he said. "It just doesn't seem right."
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