Saturday, September 13, 2008

Renovation, development butt heads in Bel-Ridge

Renovation, development butt heads in Bel-Ridge

A year ago, the Hood's store on Natural Bridge Road was an eyesore. The windows were boarded up, the roof leaked and the parking lot was full of potholes.

Mike Hood, the owner, candidly says the city of Bel-Ridge probably could have condemned the building years ago, or at least cited it for multiple code violations. But it didn't, and Hood launched a major renovation after buying the discount home-improvement store in January from his father, Ernest.

Three-quarters of the way into that $1 million project, Hood's has a new roof, new glass, a repaved parking lot and new bathrooms. A shop being built in one corner will cut countertop materials to customers' specifications.

Assuming he's right about the market for discounted cabinets and flooring, Hood's investment should assure the store of a long and prosperous future. But, three months into his renovations, Hood learned of a complication: A couple of years earlier, Bel-Ridge had approved a redevelopment plan for a 78-acre swath of the city. The developer, Clayco, can acquire property by eminent domain.

That means Hood, like owners of other businesses along Natural Bridge and the homes to the north, could have his property taken by force. A court proceeding would determine the property's market value, but Hood might not get back the money he's putting into the store. In all likelihood, he also wouldn't be compensated for what he sees as the store's potential.

Because of the store's size and visibility from Interstate 170, Hood thinks it could become the best performer in his family's 19-store chain. (He owns eight Hood's stores, his sister Jill Meyer owns four, and seven are part of the estate of his father, who died in August.)

The location also has sentimental value: It has been a Hood's for 25 years, and it's just a couple of miles from where Ernest Hood opened his first store in the 1950s.

Mike Hood has talked to Clayco officials, and he says he's not one to stand in the way of progress. "I wouldn't mind working with the fellows if I knew I could have a store here, or they would set me up in another location," Hood said. "But you can only get so far with them."

Matt Prickett, a development manager with Clayco, says the Bel-Ridge project is on hold because of the soft economy. It was envisioned as a major retail center, and retailers aren't in an expansion mode.

"The market is what it is," Prickett said.

Clayco has talked to Hood, he said, "but it's been awhile. To the extent we don't have anything going on, there's no need to talk to them."

As for the wisdom of

investing $1 million in a store that Clayco could buy and tear down, Prickett said he'd impart the same advice he gives to homeowners: "We encourage them to make the necessary investments to maintain the health and safety of their property."

Bevis Schock, a Clayton attorney who works with a group called Missouri Citizens for Property Rights, said he has heard stories like Hood's many times before. "It's tough to fight City Hall," he said. "When they decide they're going after your land, they're going to get it."

Schock's group didn't get enough signatures to place an anti-eminent-domain proposal on the November ballot, but it plans to try again. The more voters hear about property owners like Hood, who just wants to invest in his business without the threat of having it taken away, the more receptive they'll be to pleas for reform.

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