Cracker Barrel pulls plug on Columbus plans

May 14, 2013 10:19:38 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


A local Realtor who was brokering a deal to bring Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant to Columbus said Monday that negotiations are off and, to his knowledge, the popular food chain has decided not to build a store in the area at this time.  


Tommy Tate, of Swoope Real Estate, said the news came as a surprise to him as well as to city officials, who had been working with the Lebanon, Tenn.-based company since January. 


Tate said he met several times with consultants from Cherry & Associates, a Nashville-based commercial real estate firm, about a 2.49-acre parcel of land on 18th Avenue North, adjacent to Smith Landscaping and Greenhouse. But although they had written a letter of intent to purchase the property for an undisclosed price and had indicated last month that a contract was forthcoming "any day," the contract never arrived.  


On the morning of May 3, Tate received an email from a Cherry & Associates consultant saying that the project had been put on hold "pending additional study." 


"This typically means they will not revisit it for a year or so. Some things have come up within their sales forecast model which are causing them to pause," Tate said, quoting the email via telephone Monday afternoon.  


The consultant wrote that he believed the model was "a bit off," but he had been unable to persuade Cracker Barrel representatives to reconsider.  


The news came on the heels of a meeting several weeks ago between city officials and Martin Holland, vice president of development operations for Florida-based L.D. Reeves & Associates, which was handling the site evaluation and plan approval process.  


The meeting was attended by city planner Christina Berry, building department director Kenny Wiegel, city engineer Kevin Stafford and city fire marshal Todd Weathers. Sources close to the project said the meeting with Holland had gone well and, as of Monday afternoon, they still were not aware that the deal had been called off.  


Holland also reportedly met with the Mississippi Department of Transportation and Columbus Light and Water Department. Although there were rumors that Cracker Barrel officials had purchased the 18th Avenue North property -- or at least placed earnest money toward it -- those rumors are not true, Tate said.  


Lowndes County Tax Assessor Greg Andrews said he has not seen a deed and is not aware of the company purchasing land anywhere in Lowndes County. Wiegel said they have not applied for any permits.  


The property under consideration, now a prime location, was purchased in the 1960s as an investment by the late William Nowell Haggard, Tate said. Haggard died in 2009, leaving the land to his estate. His daughter, Jaynn Kushner of Birmingham, was allegedly handling the property negotiations.  


City officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Dispatch last month that Holland had said the project was "full-steam ahead" and that Cracker Barrel was coming, it was just a matter of when. He had estimated the restaurant would open early next year.  


But it is not unusual for negotiations to fall through at the last minute, Tate said.  


"Nothing is binding until we get a contract," he said. "These things just don't happen overnight. You have to be very delicate with it. It's not a done deal until you get your money. All these big corporations -- they know how to work something and run it to the end." 


Those involved with the negotiations said it was a disappointment to learn the company had changed its mind.  


"I really felt like it would be a shot in the arm for Columbus and really help the people," Tate said. "It just made us all sick. Everything was a go until we got this email from them. We kept our hopes high on this, and when it ended, I emailed my contact in Nashville and told them we were really sorry to hear it. We did everything we could. You just can't push a deal like this. You just have to sort of let the dominoes fall in place." 


Holland, along with Cracker Barrel corporate communications manager Jeanne Ludington, did not return phone calls by press time. Sources were unaware of any plans by Cracker Barrel to locate elsewhere within the Golden Triangle.  


The company, which opened its first location in 1969 in Lebanon, Tenn., is known for its home-style cooking and country-themed gift shop. The corporate website states that the chain owns 600 restaurants in 42 states.

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.