NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – The owner of a black-owned restaurant/nightclub on Granby Street whose permit was not renewed Tuesday night by the Norfolk City Council calls the decision “premeditated” and that he is being punished for a mistake simple.
He shared leaked emails with WAVY on Tuesday that show communication between city officials before the eventual permit denial, one of which shows at least one council member voted against it based on reasons other officials said had already been addressed.
“I was in a mess. I was honestly surprised .. but then again I really wasn’t,” said co-owner Clarence “CJ” Reynolds of Caior Bistro & Social in the NEON District, who was looking to renew his already existing permit.
On Tuesday night, council members Paul Riddick and Danica Royster were the only two on the council to side with Reynolds in voting to approve the permit. Now, just before the holidays, Reynolds says he can’t even reopen his restaurant business because of the denial.
The move comes after the council revoked the same permits for some downtown area businesses this year, citing the possibility of future violence after multiple high-profile shootings downtown in 2022. The businesses have been predominantly black-owned with a predominantly black clientele.
A big fan of music, Reynolds said he put more than $100,000 into the business and it opened on Cinco de Mayo 2021. He co-owns the business with his partner, Serena Harris.
Caior has operated primarily as a restaurant, but would stay open late on weekends and have nightlife. Reynolds said he was there every day it was open and had never had a fight or called the police.
“I’m really big on customer service… I really like the vibe” … just being around people. I was seeing the development of Granby Street and I said, ‘Well, this would be a good place to put a place for people to come and have a good time, have a drink, in a safe environment.’ … It’s always a good time.”
Reynolds pointed out in an interview that Tuesday night’s vote was for a renewal of his conditional use permit, which expired this fall. The CUP is a Norfolk regulation that is needed if a business wants to offer what is considered nightlife; usually this means staying open until 2am and providing a DJ.
In the months leading up to the renewal vote, Reynolds said he did everything the city wanted, from tearing down a roughly seven-foot privacy fence to removing stickers painted on the front of the business.
Tearing down the fence allowed a city-required surveillance camera to be put in place, Reynolds said. It later agreed to stay open until midnight, a deal struck with Norfolk’s planning commission after it won a narrow 3-2 approval recommendation this November.
He invested more than $25,000 in additional renovations — and paid the rent while it was closed, which was roughly another $20,000. He also kept about 15 to 16 employees on staff during that period.
In all, he said he paid about $80,000 in total in hopes of getting approved for the renewal, though he had doubts he would get the CUP. He said he was informed by his landlord in July that someone from the city called and indicated it would not be approved.
“[Norfolk Current Planning Manager Susan Pollock-Hart] kept saying you have to be compliant,” Reynolds said.
However, he said he later won the blessing of the Downtown Norfolk Civic League — they initially agreed to the CUP in September with a caveat of those changes Reynolds made, according to an email about the deal forwarded to him — until November. 15 meeting with Pollock-Hart just two days before Reynolds’ meeting with the Norfolk Planning Commission.
It had to do with an LLC name change that was made before the business opened, Reynolds said. There were spelling mistakes with the LLC’s original name, and its agent made the change in December 2020, Reynolds said.
“During the entire two years of my work [Pollock-Hart] never mentioned it to me before … until the week of my planning commission meeting,” Reynolds said. “I basically went into the blind date and had to cry my eyes out to get one [3-2 vote] and then that same day [Pollock-Hart] requested a meeting, the Downtown Norfolk Civic League got their consent [that would have allowed Reynolds to renew].”
Reynolds also shared with 10 On Your Side an email sent by DNCL President Lelia Vann Pollock-Hart and other city officials at 11:30 p.m. on Nov. 14, the day before Reynolds met with Pollock-Hart.
In it, Vann says DNCL “no longer agrees with the renewal of the CUP,” saying that since the initial approval “we have since learned that Caior has had several violations, including overcapacity, zoning, ownership issues and service calls NPD”.
Reynolds disputed these allegations, particularly the calls for service. He also said the overcapacity call was dismissed and that he and Harris have been the sole two owners of the business.
Reynolds added that he wanted to share his story and set the record straight during Tuesday’s council meeting, but was not allowed to speak despite being registered to do so.
Reynolds’ attorney, Steve Heretick, spoke on his behalf and asked for the matter to continue, saying the council had received “inaccurate” material about police calls for service allegedly to Caior’s address. He said he thought he had clarified the information at the Nov. 17 planning commission meeting.
“There was no call for service for this particular business… [owner] CJ Reynolds is the manager on site every day it’s open, there have been no police calls for service,” Heretick said in a follow-up interview with WAVY on Wednesday.
Heretick said the calls, which included reports of shots fired and a stabbing, were actually in nearby areas, such as an adjacent city-owned parking lot. He said at least twice the business was not open when police were called. His office planned to use the Freedom of Information Act in that proceeding to obtain detailed police reports to clean up the records.
Councilwoman Andria McClellan said at Tuesday’s meeting that she understood what Heretick was saying about the service calls and instead stressed that she was more concerned about the restaurant’s business practices.
“I’m very concerned about the ownership going back and forth… it’s very strange. Business entities were merged and then a CUP was created for one, then another was dissolved and another was taken over. It’s too much, it’s not good practice,” McClellan said in voting against the continuance. She also joined the no vote on the CUP resolution.
However, in an email from Downtown Norfolk Council President Mary Miller to the Norfolk City Council on Monday, Dec. 12, the day before the vote, Miller wrote “the ownership issue, per staff report, has been resolved.”
Reynolds says he got that email from a whistleblower. WAVY has reached out to McClellan twice for comment, but has not heard back.
Additionally, Heretick placed the blame more generally on the CUP’s denial of Pollock-Hart and her staff, saying they removed documents to the city council that had been shared with the planning commission.
“All we can do is wonder why in the world the planning staff and Susan Pollock would basically lie to the city council? And don’t give us any opportunity to address the misstatements the same way we can with the planning commission, by the way, we got approval from the planning commission over Susan’s objection.”
Heretick says he believes the issue with Norfolk’s nightlife leaders shutting down is at least partly about race.
“If you compare the way white-owned businesses are treated in downtown Norfolk and now to see how this black-owned business has been treated, I think there are significant differences,” Heretick said. Councilman Riddick, who had his last council meeting Tuesday, and the NAACP have shared similar sentiments.
Whatever the motive, Reynolds said, “I just want the city of Norfolk to know that they hurt people with their judgment, a personal judgment, because this was business, this was personal, the way some of the city council was acting.. . I just hope they realize they’re playing with people’s livelihoods … instead of closing people’s institutions like they’re closing them, they should talk to them.”
Reynolds added that he wants more communication and fairness in overall decision-making when it comes to things like conditional use permits.
“There’s no fairness in the city of Norfolk, they’re not transparent, they fail to communicate with small business owners unless you’re probably related to them,” Reynolds said Wednesday. “I have the same concerns that anyone on Granby Street has: violence, car thefts, break-ins … I was a neighbor before I was a business owner … no one contacted me,” citing McClellan and Councilwoman Courtney. Doyle by name.
“What information they’re given, that’s what they go with. They’re not reaching out to business owners and they want any kind of clarification… and that’s unfair,” Reynolds added.
WAVY reached out to the city for comment from Pollock-Hart. A city spokesman adjourned following remarks from the council on Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, another nightclub whose license was revoked, Legacy Lounge, officially completed their appeal process with the city this week. A judge also recently denied a temporary injunction that would have allowed Scotty Quixx to reopen as a nightclub after the Granby Street business sued the city.