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The voice of the people has been silenced by the state — and a lot of people are getting screwed.
Vox Pop, the beloved café and neighborhood hangout in Ditmas Park, has closed for good, and all of its assets will be auctioned off by the state on Sept. 15.
“I’m really sad about it closing,” said Angela Welch, an investor in the café, as well as a regular. “It always felt like a social experiment to me.”
But now that experiment is over, and around $12,000 in backpay for employees and $4,500 in debt to suppliers may go unpaid, according to a financial analysis posted online in July.
“Unfortunately, that’s the case [that employees’ wages may go unpaid],” said Tim Olson, the chairman of the board of the café at Cortelyou and Stratford roads.
The outstanding debt should be a surprise to no one — the joint had been closed by the taxman several times in the last few months due to money owed to the state.
The official decision to pop Vox Pop for good came on Sept. 7 after a meeting of the café’s shareholders — there are around 210 total — in which the group discussed the business’s fate, given that the state had locked its doors yet again.
“It came to a point where we thought, ‘How many times can we afford to do this?” said Debi Ryan, the general manager of the café. “We all wanted the sense of community to continue, but the amount of debt, especially the tax debt, seemed to grow exponentially.”
The collective considered various alternatives — including raising $103,288 to reopen, declaring bankruptcy, or doing nothing and allowing the state to seize and auction the assets.
The shareholders settled on the latter.
“We couldn’t afford to [stay open] and sustain ourselves at the same time,” said Ryan.
Vox Pop was in the hole $246,647, including around $134,000 in back taxes, according to the shareholders’ financial analysis.
Much of that debt was due to the mismanagement of Vox Pop’s founder, the 9-11 conspiracy theorist Sander Hicks, who was instrumental in its unique atmosphere that welcomed comedians, musicians, and revolutionaries — and its ultimate demise.
“I wish there was a second chance for it,” said Hicks.
In order to give the café a second chance, shareholders forced Hicks to divest himself of the company last January.
Still, in just four more months, the place was again shut down by the taxman.
Hicks theorized that there were sinister forces — beyond his inability to run a business — conspiring to close the café’s doors.
“I can’t say for certain that there was government bias in the closing of Vox Pop,” he said. “But we started getting fines like $14,000 from a single inspection from the city’s Department of Health. I can’t say for certain its because we were ‘Truthers’ — but questioning Sept. 11 sure didn’t help.”
But the fallout from the end of Vox Pop has led to more immediate concerns.
Ryan — who had dedicated much of the last year to saving the café — must figure out how to avoid being on the hook for all its back taxes, as the government is holding her liable as the CEO of the business.
“Hopefully there will be legal ways to get me off the hook for some if not all of it — I’m on the hook for a lot of money right now,” Ryan said.
To top it off, Ryan had deferred over $30,000 in salary — money that she may never see.
Some locals saw the end of Vox Pop as a sign that did not bode well for the neighborhood.
“I hate to be defeatist, but there is nothing you can do to keep the character of the neighborhood from turning into a more corporate one,” said Welch. “There was a special point in time when nice things [restaurants and other businesses] came into Ditmas Park, and Vox Pop was really central to that.”
But Ryan added that while the café is gone for good, the movement for a community center to fill the void left by Vox Pop has already begun.
“There was an overwhelming desire [among shareholders] to try and build a community center,” Ryan said. “Where and in what form remains to be seen.”
The online forum to discuss a new community center in Ditmas Park can be found at http://groups.google.com/group/cortelyou-community-center?lnk=srg.
©2010 Community Newspaper Group
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