Hamilton Initiative Does Not Extend Curtain Call’s Lease

Sarah Chandler

Due to a non-renewal of its lease by the Hamilton Initiative, Curtain Call is required to vacate its current location by January 31. If a new, viable location is not found, the catering company might have to end its relationship with Colgate University, which would dramatically impact many catered events held on campus.

Curtain Call, located at 3 Lebanon Street, next to the Hamilton Theater, was opened in 1997 by owners Julie and Rob Standish. Originally started as a 12-seat sandwich shop, the business evolved into a catering company to capitalize on the high demand from Colgate for catered meals. The company has grown over the years and now caters many events on campus including Women’s Studies Brown Bags, faculty receptions and Career Services functions. Rob Standish estimates that over 95 percent of their business is catering on the Colgate campus.

Curtain Call’s original lease, which was signed on March 7, 1997 was due to terminate on November 30, 2011. However, the lease was transferred to the Hamilton Initiative in 2003 when it purchased the former Sheldon Opera House, which houses Curtain Call.

The Hamilton Initiative is a limited liability corporation, or for-profit group, started in 1999.  According to Vice President for Community Affairs and Auxiliary Services Joanne Borfitz, its sole member is Colgate University and it is the vehicle the University uses to invest significantly in the village of Hamilton to vitalize the community, which in turn helps with recruitment and retention efforts of students, faculty and staff. The Initiative has purchased 11 properties in downtown Hamilton, including the Hamilton Theater, the Palace Theater and the Colgate Bookstore building.

“The Initiative works really hard to increase the vitality and the whole look and feel of the community, as well as help the businesses in the community as much as we can to make sure that they are successful, drawing in foot traffic and helping to support the other businesses,” Borfitz said.

The Standishes’ request to extend their lease an additional 10 years in August 2010 was denied by the Initiative, but due to efforts from staff and faculty, the decision was reversed and Curtain Call’s lease was eventually renewed.

Borfitz states that with renewal came the agreement that it would only be for one year and that it would be the absolute last extension.

“They were given a minimum of 12 months notice that we would not be extending their lease, so it is not an eviction; we are just choosing not to extend their lease,” Borfitz said. “Prior to that, several years ago, we worked with them to try and relocate….It never worked out, so we said, ‘Okay, we will renew this lease again for a two year period and that’s the end.’ So they’ve been signaled all along that this would be coming to an end.”

The Standishes maintain that it was their belief that their lease would continue to be renewed until Curtain Call could be relocated to a comparable property. According to Robert Standish, he only received official notification on September 6, 2013 that the lease would not be extended beyond January 31, 2014.

“In Hamilton, it is not often that a landlord asks a commercial tenant to leave; it is normally quite the opposite.” Standish said. “However, the Hamilton Initiative would like to create a village of quaint little shops to appeal to parents of prospective Colgate students. Although many at Colgate use our service, we don’t fit the bill for the image the Hamilton Initiative wishes to portray. Their actions fail to demonstrate the moral or ethical responsibility to their tenants that you would expect from an esteemed university like Colgate. It is decisions like this that perpetuate the ill will on the town side of the town and gown relationship that the Hamilton Initiative is tasked with building.”

Borfitz said that the decision not to renew the lease was based off the perception that there are better uses for the space. “I think it is really important to use every asset the Initiative has to stimulate foot traffic and business in the community,” Borfitz said. “And because this is a catering business, it isn’t drawing any foot traffic into the community and helping to support the businesses next to it.”

The Initiative has already received inquiries from a small restaurant that is interested in that space and there is also a retail clothing business that has expressed interest as well.

“The Initiative wants to expand the options we have in Hamilton,” Borfitz said. “We had a retail assessment done about eight months ago and one of the areas they indicated where there was still unmet need was in the restaurant business. That was actually supported by a survey the Hamilton Initiative in partnership with Community and Development had done two years ago where they asked people what they wanted more of in Hamilton. Restaurants were on the top of that list.”

In an effort to support Curtain Call and its continued existence in Hamilton, Harvey Picker Professor of International Relations Fred Chernoff sent a letter to the Colgate administration on October 14, 2013 that received over 60 signatures from other supportive faculty and staff members. President Herbst sent a letter in response and additionally Borfitz held a meeting in which staff could voice concerns over the potential loss of Curtain Call. Neither party agreed to publish their letters in the Maroon-News.

In the meeting the importance of Curtain Call to the Colgate community was discussed, according to Administrative Assistant to the Vice President and Commencement Coordinator Michele Carney.

“The loss of Curtain Call would make catered events a lot more challenging because we are going to have to figure out so much more; it would be a lot more time consuming on my end because I won’t be able to just call them up,” Carney said. “They always do an amazing job and are so accommodating and flexible. They are also the most reasonably priced catering company in town.”

Borfitz said that she understands the concerns voiced at the meeting and that is why the Initiative has tried to work with Curtain Call.

“We’ve worked to try to find another location and to offer financial assistance to help Curtain Call move but they are a private business and what they choose to do is their decision,” Borfitz said. “We as a landlord have given them more than ample notice that we would not be extending their lease. We really do wish them the best.”

Robert Standish said that although they would like to continue serving Colgate, the cost of moving and establishing a new commercial kitchen in the town of Hamilton is too expensive. Additionally, according to Standish, the Initiative offered Curtain Call $10,000 two years ago to apply toward renovating a new location; on October 1, 2013, the offer was lowered to $3,000. Standish said that this assistance would not be nearly enough to pay for necessary construction and equipment as well as other costs.

The Standishes remain hopeful.  “I would not speak for the Hamilton Initiative, but I am confident that an overwhelming majority of the Colgate community would like to see our service continue,” Robert Standish said. “We are working on several more proposals to offer Joanne in hopes that now with the enthusiastic involvement of President Herbst, she’ll be better able to help.”

In the event of Curtain Call’s closing, there are few other viable catering alternatives available.

“In the meeting we had, the administration did not offer any other catering possibilities,” Carney said. “They did say that we can use Sodexo, but I don’t think Sodexo can handle the amount that we would have to utilize them.”

Colgate students said that the loss of Curtain Call would definitely be felt.

“I look forward to going to Women Study Brown Bags because of the fresh food and variety that Curtain Call provides,” sophomore Samantha Hom said. “I can’t get that type of fresh and healthy food anywhere else on campus and I think that the loss of Curtain Call would be a huge one.”

Contact Sarah Chandler [email protected]