The Cambridge Pizza Pit will close its doors on Sept. 26 after months of negotiations that ultimately failed to broker a new lease with the town of Christiana.
Steve Meier and several partners own the Pizza Pit business at 275 W. Main St., in Cambridge, as well as Pizza Pits in Sun Prairie, Lake Mills and on the west side of Madison. They have been paying $1,200 a month to the town of Christiana under a property lease that expires Oct. 20.
Christiana bought the site in 2019 for expansion of the Cambridge fire and EMS station, but the timeline for completion of that project remains unclear after referendums to fund it failed last April.
Meier had asked the town of Christiana to extend his lease for five years, and to repave the parking lot and fix the building’s roof.
On Monday, Sept. 20, as those discussions hit a wall, he said in an interview that he was done.
“We would prefer to stay here. But I am a businessman and now I need to make decisions. I have to move on,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do at this point.”
The town bought the property two years ago for $280,000, in a deal with four other area municipalities. The five collectively provide fire and EMS service to the Cambridge area, as part of the Cambridge Community Fire and EMS Commission.
The towns of Oakland and Lake Mills, and villages of Cambridge and Rockdale, have since been paying Christiana a small amount of interest. The vision had been that Christiana would later recoup from those four their portions of the purchase cost, after voters in April 2021 approved five simultaneous municipal referendums to expand the Cambridge fire and EMS station at 271 W. Main St., onto the adjacent Pizza Pit site.
At least, that was the idea.
The vision was upended when three out of five referendums, collectively seeking $6.5 million to triple the station’s footprint, failed in Christiana, Oakland and Cambridge. Referendums passed in Rockdale and the town of Lake Mills.
The five towns and villages have long cooperated to fund annual Cambridge-area fire and EMS costs, and each has a representative on the Cambridge Community Fire and EMS Commission.
Their plan had been to split the station expansion cost according to their equalized values, the same way that annual costs are divided.
Five successful April 2021 referendums were required for the station expansion to move forward, per a 2019 agreement to buy the Pizza Pit site signed by all 5 municipalities, that laid out how Christiana would ultimately recoup portions of the purchase cost from the others.
Some of the referendums almost didn’t happen, despite that agreement language. Throughout 2020, several townships considered just bringing the question to annual voters meetings. That changed late in the year, and all 5 referendums proceeded, when a group of citizens argued that not putting referendums on all five ballots on April 6 violated the terms of the Pizza Pit site purchase agreement
Following the failed referendums, a committee spent the summer reviewing the station plans. It brought a recommendation to the commission on Sept. 16, saying it saw ways to bring the cost down to as little as $5 million, through strategic trimming of square footage. The commission will discuss and could vote on a revised plan at its next meeting, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7 at the fire and EMS station.
A new slate of referendums are envisioned in April 2022, but that timeline remains tentative.
Meier, who bought the Pizza Pit business in Cambridge in 2016, meanwhile spent the summer watching the clock tick down on his lease with the town of Christiana. In those months, has said he grew increasingly concerned about the site becoming mired in local politics and about unresolved building and property maintenance issues.
At a Sept. 13 meeting, the Christiana town board drew a line, saying it wouldn’t offer Meier more than a one-year lease. It said a longer-term lease would complicate the station expansion plans.
The fire and EMS commission subsequently on Sept. 16 backed a 1-year lease, additionally suggesting offering Meier free rent for a year.
Meier said, however, that his goal has always been to build up the business in order to re-sell it to another franchisee. He said no new buyer will be attracted to a less than 5-year lease and said the specter of the building being torn down at an unknown future date is also a deterrant.
“I have to have some guarantees. I can’t sell a restaurant that doesn’t have a future,” he said. That “has basically hung us. I can’t sell (the business). I don’t have a commodity,” he said.
Meier has in recent months also questioned why the Pizza Pit business was being made to pay utility bills for both the restaurant and a rental house on the property. The commission said on Sept. 16 it might help cover the utilities.
But the commission on Sept. 16 rejected a proposal offered by Cambridge Village President Mark McNally, that it set aside up to $40,000 to help Meier relocate locally if the station plans move ahead.
That relocation assistance had been a cornerstone of McNally’s recent efforts to keep Pizza Pit in Cambridge.
The funds would have only been available had Meier picked a new location within 1.5 miles of his existing site in downtown Cambridge.
Meier and his attorneys had also raised questions about Cambridge’s recent determination that unpaid personal property taxes, owed by the former owner of the business, were now his responsibility. McNally had said the village was working to resolve that dispute.
The commission on Sept. 16 also stopped short of agreeing to Meier’s request to reconstruct the Pizza Pit parking lot, saying it would fill potholes but would not make a significant investment, considering its long-term plans to redevelop the site.
Christiana Town Chairman Mark Cook told the commission he wasn’t hopeful that Meier would accept a 1-year lease.
McNally concurred, saying “if they don’t get five years they are going to be done,”
“You can’t sell a franchise if you don’t have a long-term lease. Nobody’s going to buy it,” Cook acknowledged. “So, he’s in a bad spot, we’re in a bad spot.”
The town of Christiana has suggested in recent months that the fire and EMS commission buy the property from it. That idea has not progressed.
It’s not in the town’s long-term interest to be a landlord, Cook has said.
“We’ve got a piece of property that we really don’t have any business managing,” he told the Christiana town board on Sept. 13.
“You hate to run any business out,” Cook continued, adding that he doesn’t like the prospect of the building appearing abandoned when voters have yet to grant approval to expand the station.
“I don’t like how that looks,” he said.
The situation is “a conflict for me, I don’t know what to do with it,” Cook said. “An empty businesses isn’t a good thing for our community.”
However, Cook said, “they need five years and we understand that.”
McNally similarly said in interview on Sept. 20 that he’s concerned not just about the impact of the lost lease revenue, but also about the site being vacant at the entrance to Cambridge’s downtown. He called it a potential future “attractive nuisance.”
“We’ve got a local business and they are producing a good product,” McNally said. “I didn’t want to see this happen. I do not want to see a business leave nor an empty storefront.”
In a Sept. 20 interview, Meier confirmed that what was offered didn’t rise to his needs.
He said the restaurant would shut down after Sunday, Sept. 26, allowing a few weeks until the end of the lease to clear out equipment.
He said employees had been notified.
He thanked McNally “for trying” but said the fire and EMS commission “seems more concerned about the fire station,” than retaining the restaurant.
He said he and his business partners ultimately agreed to “just pull the plug and move on.”
He said he planned to post a message on the sign outside, sharing a departing sentiment for customers.
“The people in Cambridge and Deerfield have been wonderful,” he said.
Cook said he’ll have more information at Christiana’s next town board meeting on the potential fiscal impact of the loss of the lease revenue on the five municipalities that make up the fire and EMS commission.
He said the reality is that a long-term lease would have locked up the site, when the commission needs flexibility as it proceeds with its station expansion discussion and a possible new slate of referendums next year.
“The facts are that someday that property will be part of a growing emergency services facility,” Cook said.
Meier’s lease predates the town of Christiana’s purchase of the site. It includes a right of first refusal if the property goes up for sale. Per that, he has 14 days to review any bona fide purchase offer, to match it if he chooses and to buy the site himself.
He said he had a chance to exercise that right when Christiana said it was interested in buying the land in 2019.
He said former town chairman Maureen Lien made clear then that the town planned to buy the property in cooperation with the other four municipalities and they planned to tear down the house and restaurant in 3-7 years to make way for the larger station.
He said he never seriously considered buying the site.
He said that doesn’t mesh with his business plan, that requires flexibility in order re-sell the business to future potential new franchisees. He also said any notion of buying the site ended on the advice of his attorneys, who said it wasn’t worth the $280,000 that Christiana paid for it.
“They said ‘it’s a bad investment,’” Meier recalls.
Meier said he has looked into moving to a different site in the Cambridge or Deerfield area, and has found nothing suitable. He said a new location would have to be move-in ready with a viable commercial kitchen. He said he’s not interested in spending the money required to retrofit a space.
Now, the town “is going to have to hold onto (the property) and pay the bills for it,” Meier said, adding that the situation was the fire and EMS commission’s doing.
“They created this mess.”