By Bob Uphues
A coffee shop/catering business that has called the Riverside train station home for the past three years will close its doors for good on Dec. 31.
Riverside's village board has decided not to renew its lease with Soul Amici Express, said Village Manager Peter Scalera, because the business has not been able to repay two years' worth of property taxes on the 710-square-foot space.
"The village hates to lose any business, but the board felt it was their responsibility to protect the taxpayers of Riverside and avoid any further burden of the outstanding debt being placed on the residents," said Scalera.
The owners of the business, Lynn and Anthony DiGianfilippo, say they don't want to leave Riverside, but that they got little help from the village in trying to solve the issue of the unpaid taxes — which is an enormous sum for a business so small.
When the DiGianfilippos signed their first lease with the village, the contract called for them to pay the property taxes for the commercial space in the train station at 90 Bloomingbank Road. The way it worked was the village would pay the taxes and then bill Soul Amici Express for reimbursement.
At the time, it didn't seem like a big problem. A real estate office had been located in the space, and the property taxes were between $1,500 and $2,300. In addition, the village was charging them $1,000 per month and a $4,000 special event fee. The DiGianfilippos gutted the old office space and created the café area and kitchen, making sure the design fit in with the historic character of the train station.
Soul Amici Express opened on Dec. 4, 2009 and the tax bill in 2010 (for taxes assessed in 2009) was $1,456. The two sides inked a new two-year contract for the space on Jan. 18, 2010.
The contract called for Soul Amici Express to pay the property taxes unless they went up more than 5 percent in any one year. In that case, the village would pay the difference. But the contract called for the baseline for the property assessment to be the 2010 tax year, payable in 2011.
When the county reassessed the property in 2010, the tax bill the village received was a jaw-dropper.
Because of the improvements made to the space and the fact that the new business was retail and not service-oriented, the bill for the tiny space skyrocketed to $10,230, an increase of more than 600 percent. In 2011, the taxes increased again to $10,922.
That's a lot of cups of coffee.
Even adding the catering business and hosting large events for local organizations, there was no way for the DiGianfilippos to cover the taxes. When the village asked the business to reimburse it for the taxes, the DiGianfilippos wanted options.
According to Scalera, they were told to contact Cook County.
"We told them they needed to appeal the taxes," Scalera said.
While they were in favor of appealing the taxes, the DiGianfilippos wanted help from the village. After all, said Lynn DiGianfilippo, "We don't own the building. The village does."
Scalera said the village directed the DiGianfilippos to Riverside Township Assessor Fran Sitkiewicz, who said she helped them navigate the appeals process with the Cook County Board of Review.
"It's such a unique property that it's tough to get comparables," said Sitkiewicz. "I know the Board of Review suggested they get an appraisal done, but that costs a lot of money. For a small business, it's kind of a Catch 22."
Sitkiewicz said that in August she was contacted by analysts from the Board of Review, suggesting that some sort of deal might be in the works. However, the board's website indicates that an appeal was never officially filed.
"We hoped we could work it out from within, and we could all mutually come to some conclusion, but unfortunately it didn't happen," said Tony DiGianfilippo.
In addition to directing the DiGianfilippos to the township, Scalera said the village gave them extra time to reimburse it for the taxes.
"I don't know what else the village could have done," said Scalera, who added that the owner of the barber shop in the station has filed appeals for his taxes on his own in the past.
"[The DiGianfilippos] have done a lot for the community, and Lynn and Tony are very good people," said Scalera. "We hate to see that they're going to be leaving."
Lynn DiGianfilippo is also disappointed to be leaving town.
"For the clients we had, we want to extend our heartfelt thanks," she said. "It's disheartening to us to have to leave, but it wasn't our choice."
Once the coffee shop leaves the space, the village will seek to have the Board of Review re-classify the property as vacant in order to bring the property taxes back down.
Scalera said that finding a new tenant for the space will be tough, if the property taxes remain so high.
"It'll be challenging, but hopefully we'll be able to find a use that will fit with the building and work with the assessor in regard to that plan," Scalera said.