Restaurateur Thelma Oliver is three times hotter than the fiery peppers she uses in her green chili pork. The owner of the two-year-old Mango Room at 1111 Main Street has had about all she can take of downtown construction hurting her business. The current spate of construction -- which has the Mango Room’s main entrance wrapped in orange netting and ripped-up sidewalks – is the third major project on this corner since Oliver opened in May 2005. These construction nightmares – one was the destruction of the old Jones Store building across the street – are all part of the so-called downtown renaissance that promises a revitalized urban zone filled with shops, entertainment and restaurants.
But Oliver is concerned that her independently owned restaurant -- unlike the corporate chain venues already signed on for the yet-uncompleted Power & Light district – is being ignored by city officials while she’s losing, she insists, more than $5,000 a week in revenue from customers who can’t find a place to park, think the restaurant is closed or give up trying to find a way into the dining room.
It broke her heart, Oliver told me, to watch hundreds of Skillpath USA conventioneers roam through downtown Kansas City last week without crossing 12th and Main because they assumed the Mango Room wasn’t open.
Saturday afternoon, Oliver lost more than money. She lost her temper and sent an angry e-mail to Mayor Mark Funkhouser, City Manager Wayne Cauthen, City Councilman Russ Johnson and a variety of media outlets. The e-mail began without subtlety: “I’m Mad As Hell And I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore.”
Oliver’s e-mail is the electronic version of a white flag: “From the south west corner of 12th and Main, you can not even tell that there is a restaurant on the north east corner of 12th and Main. Two weeks ago if you were in The Mango Room sitting at a table on the 12th St. side, you could view construction workers going in and out of the portable toilet in front of my window. This continued for a couple of days until I bribed one of the construction workers with a fried chicken dinner to move the toilet farther down on Main Street.”
By this afternoon, Oliver said she’d only received responses from two people: a KSHB Channel 41 reporter and me.
What really burns Oliver is that she’s not only an urban pioneer in this neighborhood (the space that houses The Mango Room sat vacant for four years before Oliver invested everything she owned in her restaurant) but also one of the few minority-owned businesses in this area.
“I asked my landlords [Copaken, White and Blitt] for rent relief three weeks ago,” Oliver says. “And I’ve heard nothing. They come in for lunch but don’t bring up the subject with me. They don’t understand that I’m barely keeping my head above water.
“Two years ago,” she adds, “I really believed in the revitalization of downtown and wanted to be part of it. Now downtown revitalization is putting me out of business.”
Oliver isn’t going to stop raising a ruckus until one of the local power nabobs contacts her and offers to help in some way.
“I couldn’t even get the city or my landlords to put up a sign saying that my business was still open. Well, it is. But I don’t know for how much longer.” – Charles Ferruzza