Mobile County will spend $35,000 to bring the kitchen area in Government Plaza up to certain health department standards before Chicken Salad Chick begins operations there, but the contribution has raised questions about how much the county should be doing to help a private business.
On Monday, the Mobile County Commission voted 2-1 to put $35,000 into the upgrades, which County Facilities Manager Tyler Martin said would address things like the number of hand washing sinks, upgrading the hot water heater and meeting new requirements for safe food storage.
Based in Auburn, Chicken Salad Chick reached a memorandum of understanding with the county earlier this year to provide limited food services within Government Plaza on a trial basis.
They stepped in after a similar agreement with Chick-fil-a fell through due to complications with its corporate office. As Chicken Salad Chick began evaluating the kitchen, it realized some upgrades would have to be made.
While some are specific to Chicken Salad Chick’s business and branding, County Attorney Jay Ross said that’s not what the public’s money will be paying for.
Instead, he said the $35,000 the county is contributing will pay for upgrades that would have to be made for any business to operate in the building.
Commissioner Merceria Ludgood has been opposed to any food service vendor establishing itself in Government Plaza since the idea was first brought up earlier this year.
She has often raised concerns about negative affect it could have on private businesses that already exist in downtown Mobile.
Before the vote this week, Ludgood asked Ross if the county is even able to expend money on the upgrade project — one she categorized as “pretty much for the benefit of a private company.”
“If the Commission feels that a public interest is served then the answer is yes. These are not decals or things that are unique for their operations,” Ross said in response. “However, I think we likely wouldn’t be doing it at this time if there was not a restaurant operation coming to Government Plaza.”
Commissioner Connie Hudson rejected the idea that the county was spending money on a private company.
While Chicken Salad Chick may benefit from the upgrades, Hudson said the county would be paying for the same improvements regardless of the company and the upgrades would be permanent.
She also stood by her argument that a food service option in Government Plaza would benefit employees, jurors and members of the public without having a significant impact on other businesses nearby.
“I’ve heard from judges. There is a need for this. If we were going to have any food service at all, this is what’s required,” Hudson told reporters. “When Government Plaza was built, the county invested the money to build out a full service restaurant. I don’t think there’s any precedent being set by this.”
With the county’s funding for those specific upgrades approved, Hudson said all indications are that Chicken Salad Chick is ready to move forward with construction as soon as possible.
The upgrades will be performed by the company’s contractors but the costs will be covered by the county.
So far, the county hasn’t given any indication of how long it will be until the restaurant is operational.
Under the agreement reached earlier this year, Chicken Salad Chick will give the county 10 percent of its pre-tax sales from the Government Plaza location in exchange for using the space.
It’s unclear what the restaurant will serve, though it’s likely to be a limited menu compared to those at standalone locations.
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