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Beni Kedem available to city?

Chip Ellis
City leaders would consider buying the Beni Kedem shrine and adjacent Fifth Quarter restaurant for expansion of the Civic Center, if the two parties can agree on a price.

Clarification

Larry Bolling, potentate of the Beni Kedem organization in Charleston, said Wednesday the group's shrine building on Quarrier Street near the Civic Center is not for sale.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As Charleston leaders gear up to renew and expand the aging Civic Center, a longtime member of Beni Kedem says the nearby shrine property could be available. The question remains, however: At what price?

Mayor Danny Jones and City Manager David Molgaard eyed the Beni Kedem property in 2007, after a consultant told them they needed to upgrade the Civic Center to keep pace with other cities and attract larger conventions.

The temple, along with the Fifth Quarter restaurant site owned by the shrine, occupies about a quarter of the superblock bounded by Quarrier, Clendenin and Lee streets and the Elk River. As such, it's the obvious place for the Civic Center to expand.

But its location along a busy street, across from Charleston Town Center Mall, also makes it a prime piece of downtown real estate.

Representatives from Beni Kedem and the city talked about a sale in 2007, but couldn't agree on a price.

"We had a considerable amount of frustration about whether they were willing to sell and at what price," Molgaard said Monday. "There didn't seem to be any consensus, and there seemed to be some resistance within the organization."

In 2007, Molgaard told the Gazette he understood Beni Kedem appraisals showed the property was worth nearly $5 million. "We're not willing to pay that," he said at the time.

John Campbell, a shrine member since 1982, said he was involved in those negotiations.

"We had all kinds of offers four, five years ago -- $2 million, $4 million," Campbell said. "I said, 'Wait a minute. BrickStreet paid $9 million for their corner. This is a heck of a lot better property.'"

After negotiations broke down, city leaders looked at other solutions, and decided to stay within the existing footprint, Molgaard said.

"The one I think stands out is to develop an elevated banquet space above the back parking lot/staging area along Lee Street," near the Grand Hall.

"We have our catering facilities, which will have to be repositioned, near that area. It's actually accessed through the Grand Hall. You have to put up a curtain in the Grand Hall to reach the catering area if you have more than one activity going on.

"I'm actually floating the idea of having a design contest, a request for qualifications," he said. Ideally the city would get several proposals and could choose the best.

"What we'd like to do is not only develop the additional space ... but develop a master plan to update the appearance of the facility. As you drive by, it's tired looking. It doesn't present itself well as a convention facility."

He'd also like to update the interior spaces. "The mall did that recently. It looks fresh and new."

All that will cost a lot -- up to $50 million, Molgaard estimates -- which is why the administration is concentrating on the money side of the project now.

City Council took two steps Monday toward Jones' goal of adding a half-cent city sales tax under the state home-rule pilot program. The idea is to use the expected tax revenues -- a net $3.6 million a year if the city also lowers or eliminates some business and occupation taxes -- to pay off a bond issue for the Civic Center.

Campbell said Beni Kedem leaders might be willing to deal, especially with a new potentate, Lawrence Bolling, about to be inaugurated this weekend.

"It could be had for the right price," Campbell said.

That was news to Molgaard. "We have not given any additional thought to approaching Beni Kedem," he said. "We thought we exhausted that possibility several years ago."

He's willing to talk though. "If they want to broach the subject, they can call me.

"We didn't have the resources to pursue $9 million [in 2007]," he said. "Now we do have a plan and resources. But $9 million out of $40 [million] to $50 million -- that's 25 percent.

"Not that we wouldn't want to pursue that property. That was our first choice. For whatever reason, they weren't at that point then."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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