Columbus chef was at odds with landlord before his lease was terminated

As deadline looms, workers prep RiverMill Event Center for weekend events, including bridal show

The management and catering services at RiverMill Event Center in Bibb City recently changed hands. Columbus-based Valley Hospitality Services through It’s Your Day Catering has assumed management and food service responsibilities. Since taking ov
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The management and catering services at RiverMill Event Center in Bibb City recently changed hands. Columbus-based Valley Hospitality Services through It’s Your Day Catering has assumed management and food service responsibilities. Since taking ov

Long before Jamie Keating vacated the RiverMill Event Center after failing to renew his lease, the well-known Columbus chef and his landlord were at odds over lawn maintenance and other issues, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer has learned.

Jamie Keating Culinary Inc., lost the lease in August when it failed to execute an automatic one-year renewal with the property’s owner, Hospital Authority of Columbus, Georgia. The lease terminated on Jan. 31 and Valley Hospitality Services, one of the Columbus-based Pezold companies, took over management of the riverside event center, which is a popular location for weddings and large charity and corporate events of 500 people or more.

Under Georgia’s Open Records Act, the Ledger-Enquirer obtained the Keating Culinary and Valley Hospitality lease agreements with the Hospital Authority of Columbus, Georgia.

The Hospital Authority of Columbus, a city authority similar to the Columbus Water Works and the Airport Authority, has owned the property for almost three years. The Hospital Authority is not affiliated with but is often confused with the Medical Center Hospital Authority, which is responsible for the city’s largest hospital.

The Hospital Authority controls Muscogee Manor Nursing Home off Schatulga Road and Azalea Trace Nursing Home on Talbotton Road and is constructing Orchard View Nursing Home on Williams Road. It also controls a home health care agency.

Keating Culinary had a five-year lease with the Hospital Authority of Columbus, Georgia executed shortly before the authority completed purchase of the property for $3.4 million from RiverMill Studio LLC. The property is being held for the future site of a nursing home or senior living facility, said Hospital Authority President Frank Morast.

The lease with Keating Culinary called for exclusive use of the main RiverMill building, four parking lots, the gardens, terrace and property associated with the old textile building.

Keating Culinary started the RiverMill Event Centre in 2006 and has operated it since the opening, including in 2008 when most of the old Bibb Mill, which houses the venue, was destroyed by fire. Keating is one of the city’s most well-known chefs and owns Epic, a nationally recognized fine dining restaurant in downtown Columbus.

Michelle and Jamie Keating discuss their recent departure from the RiverMill Event Center and future plans during a recent interview with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams.

The RiverMill with the Hospital Authority lease was structured to begin on Jan. 1, 2015 through Jan. 31, 2018. There were two one-year renewals, subject to Keating Culinary maintaining compliance of the lease terms and notifying the Hospital Authority in writing 180 days before the lease expired that it wished to renew the contract.

Keating missed the Aug. 5 deadline for the first renewal notice, putting the company out of compliance with the terms of the lease.

In October when the first news of Keating losing the RiverMill lease was reported, he said he was “100 percent wrong” and the failure to send the renewal letter was an oversight.

The language that cost Keating Culinary its lease was clear: “Failing the giving of any such notification in accordance herewith, then such option and any subsequent options to renew for such additional periods of one (1) year each shall lapse and be of no further consequence or affect, whatsoever, and this Lease shall terminate at the end of the then applicable term.”

When Keating realized he had missed renewal notice deadline and opened the door to the termination of the lease on Jan. 31, he asked his landlord for reconsideration.

“... Upon realizing I had missed the deadline to renew, I asked that that omission be excused,” Keating said in a response to email questions. “I was told that it would not be, which is why I had to vacate the facility on January 31, 2018.”

There had been issues between the Hospital Authority and Keating during the first three years of the lease, Morast said.

Keating agreed there had been lease issues with the Hospital Authority.

I am in the business of providing high quality, and in some instances, once-in-a-lifetime events/experiences,” Keating wrote. “Every detail matters. It is not unusual that issues arise in any landlord-tenant relationship, and yes, there were times we had some issues.”

And the point of contention was the condition of the facility and the grounds, Keating said.

“The nature of my business at the facility and the need to make everything as perfect as possible led to some issues about things like landscaping and roof leaks,” he said “But now, I have moved on.”

Morast said he asked for a meeting with Keating on Aug. 21 to discuss the lease.

“He couldn’t meet that week,” Morast said.

Morast, holding all of the cards, held a meeting on Sept. 6 with Keating and Jamie Keating Culinary Chef Tyler Mock.

“In that meeting, he was less than cordial and he stormed out of my office,” Morast said. “... We didn’t want to throw anybody out and leave skid marks down the asphalt.”

Morast wasted no time in replacing Keating Culinary. Morast and representatives of the authority met with representatives from Pezold’s companies, including Chief Operating Officer Tracy Sayers, the same day.

“We shook hands and Tracey pulled a dollar out of his wallet and said, ‘Other considerations,’” Morast said. “At that time, we had a handshake deal. We deposited the next day.”

The Valley Hospitality lease is dated Sept. 1, but not notarized until Sept. 21. Despite the date on the lease, Morast said there was no deal with Valley Hospitality until after the meeting with Keating.

But in a comparison of leases, Keating’s lease and the new one signed with Valley Hospitality have several critical differences. First, the amount of rent. Keating Culinary was paying $20,540 monthly in rent to the Hospital Authority. Valley Hospitality is paying a base monthly rent of $23,000.

The lease with Valley Hospitality is a five-year lease that runs through Jan. 31, 2023, and a five-year renewal upon notice from Valley Hospitality that would extend the lease into 2028.

In the Keating lease, the Hospital Authority was responsible for maintaining the grounds and gardens. In peak season, that could cost as much as $5,000 per month, Morast said. If Keating Culinary booked events into the outside areas, 90 percent of that revenue was to go to the Hospital Authority, according to the lease. Keating Culinary could not waive those rental fees without approval from the Hospital Authority.

Some of those fees were called into question, Morast said.

“We know that he had several events over the year and we didn’t get any of it,” Morast said. “... He was not following the terms of the lease on outdoor rental and that had to be addressed.”

Keating said his company was in compliance with the terms of the outside rental clause in the contract.

“Everything I believe we had to pay was paid in a timely manner before the lease ended,” Keating said.

The outside lease terms of the contact were structured in the same way it had been since he rented from Buck, Keating said.

“It has been that way since Mr. Buck and I started doing the outside in 2011,” Keating said. “For me personally, it was what I was used to and if it wasn’t broke, why fix it?”

In the new lease, Valley Hospitality will assume all costs for maintaining and improving the landscape and grounds. There are no additional fees due to the Hospital Authority for rent of the gardens and terrace.

When it became clear the Hospital Authority was going to terminate the lease with Keating Culinary, it did not take Valley Hospitality long to show interest. The large event center was a missing piece in a business that already had a catering entity, It’s Your Day Catering, multiple hotels and restaurants throughout the city and the food service contract at the National Infantry Museum.

Jack Pezold, who owns Valley Hospitality, said it took less than an hour to decide to pursue a lease with the Hospital Authority.

“The event center is going to allow us to be sort of a one-stop shop,” Pezold said. “You can come to us for an event, and we are going to have hotel rooms, we are going to have transportation and we will have the event center and we will be able to do the catering. We will be able to do the whole thing. It will be sort of like going to Callaway Gardens where they take care of everything.”

Valley Hospitality has spent the last three weeks getting the event center, which was a shell when they took over.

The management and catering services at RiverMill Event Center in Bibb City has changed hands. Columbus-based Valley Hospitality Services through It’s Your Day Catering has assumed management and food service responsibilities beginning Feb. 1.

Valley Hospitality has poured nearly $750,000 into the RiverMill venture since moving into the space at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 1, said Cassie Myers, marketing and public relations director for The Pezold Companies. Per the terms of the lease that allowed Keating Culinary to remove anything it or previous owner Brent Buck had put in the building, Valley Hospitality walked into nearly 60,000 square feet of empty space.

Valley Hospitality has spent more than $400,000 on operating items, including new tables, chairs, glassware, flatware, china, linens, decor and banquet stations.

The company has also invested almost $350,000 in replacements and improvements to the facility. A new commercial kitchen, including freezers and cooling equipment, has been installed. That includes everything from light bulbs to security systems. All of the carpets and floors have been cleaned and polished and most of the interior has been repainted.

Work also has been done to remake the bridal suite and groom’s room that are used by the wedding parties.

The first two events since the management change, a dinner for 175 people and a public bridal show, were held in the RiverMill last weekend. There was a dinner for Aflac that had to be moved on March 10 because the switchover was not complete.

The next major RiverMill event is an American Cancer Society fund raiser on March 10.

Both Keating and Morast said they are ready to put the issues behind them and move forward, but Morast can’t hide the fact that he is pleased with the new deal with Valley Hospitality.

“I might be the happiest landlord in the U.S. right now,” Morast said.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams