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- Photo by Chris Tobar Rodriguez
The Wentzells opened the Hoppy Cellar, a craft beer and wine bar, the night of Jan. 12, just hours after other vendors heard the news that Artegon was closing. They were supposed to open at the mall the following week, but after hearing from a friend that Artegon was shutting down, the couple rushed to open so they could sell the inventory they had invested in. On Jan. 26, the Hoppy Cellar closed, along with the rest of the mall, except for retail anchors like Bass Pro Shops, Ron Jon Surf Shop, the Cinemark theater, Putting Edge mini-golf course, Boot Barn, Fuddruckers and Sky Zone.
"It was a terrible experience," Tony Wentzell writes in an email. "We were completely misled in bad faith."
The Wentzells say they quit their corporate jobs last year to fulfill their dream of opening the Hoppy Cellar and signed a contract with Artegon in October 2016. They were excited about the new venture and thought things were going well. Three days before Artegon announced it was closing, the couple was still receiving emails from their leasing agent about an invoice for the store signs.
"Higher-ups within the mall and Lightstone knew that it was going to close and they could have put a stop to us spending more of our money," Wentzell says. "All they cared about was collecting as much money from us as they could before they closed."
The couple emailed the senior general manager of the mall to ask for the return of their security deposit and other investments into the bar. The Wentzells say they have not received a response or money from anyone at Artegon or Lightstone. (NOTE: After publication, a member of the PR firm retained by Lightstone replied to our queries with the following response: "Their security deposit refund was in queue for 30 days from the termination date, per their license agreement. Artegon has asked accounting to accelerate this specific tenant so they will have their refund sooner. It is not Artegon’s intention to withhold any security deposits, or for that matter any money which they are not entitled to under the license agreements.") The Wentzells couldn't provide a copy of their contract due to their traveling schedule, but another Artegon contract OW obtained says Artegon was a shopping center that was "undergoing redevelopment," and that if the owners decided not to continue the mall's redevelopment, Artegon could terminate anyone's lease or license via a written notice. The contract says the licensee would have no right to recover any costs or damages from Artegon. Multiple vendors from Artegon say each of their contracts were slightly different, though all of them mentioned a similar policy. Some of Artegon's contracts also differentiate between "licenses" and "leases."
"I also personally called the asset manager of Lightstone Group and left him a voicemail and wrote him an email requesting they write us a check for the money we lost since they had screwed us over so bad," Wentzell says. "Of course we never heard from him. I've spoken with attorneys and they all say it's not worth the legal costs to recover the money we put into the business."
While the Wentzells have decided not to sue as they relocate their business, other vendors are getting ready for a fight. So far, Sky Zone Trampoline Park, Sky Trail, NYZ at Orlando (a zombie survival attraction that was scheduled to open) and Seed of Joy LLC have filed lawsuits against Artegon's owner, FB Orlando Acquisition Company LLC, a subsidiary of Lightstone Group. Winter Park lawyer Tucker Byrd represents the first three plaintiffs and says he has more clients that plan to file.
"No explanation was given to them," Byrd says. "They were just told to get out, and get out fast."
In the 102-page complaint filed by Sky Zone, the trampoline park alleges it invested $2 million in capital improvements to its 25,000-square-foot unit when it received a notice on Jan. 12, without prior warning, that Artegon had terminated all leases and demanded vendors vacate the premise within two weeks – meaning the number of visitors was likely to drop precipitously.
"[Artegon] attempted to justify its actions by concocting the excuse that the center was still under 'redevelopment,' and thus terminable under the leases," the lawsuit says. "Defendant had 'redeveloped' the center years ago, even holding a 'grand opening,' to celebrate the repurposing and re-theming of the center, converting it from the failed 'Festival Bay Mall,' into the Artegon Marketplace.
"The recent attempt to contradict themselves, all part of a thinly-veiled attempt to absolve itself of lawful obligations under leases with tenants in the center, has interfered with Sky Zone's lease, adversely impacted its right to quiet enjoyment, and caused damages."