Last updated 8:29AM ET
June 26, 2016
Local Features
Local Features
Antique Mall Closure Causes Unrest in Small Town
Black plywood covers the front of Charlie's Antique Mall.
(wkms) - Hazel, Kentucky, is a border town in Calloway County, just before the Tennessee state line. It's a town of fewer than five hundred people, and it would be a blip on the road for most travelers if it wasn't for Hazel's most important asset: antiques. The city's official website calls antique stores "the lifeblood of this community." The city used to boast "a dozen antique stores and shopping malls" representing "several hundred antique dealers." As Angela Hatton reports, a dispute over business licenses may hurt the future of those stores.

On a weekday morning, this is usually the only sound you'll hear on Main Street in Hazel. But this morning there are other sounds. Two men are cutting plywood squares and using them to board up Charlie's Antique Mall. They are also painting the boards black. Charlie's was the largest antique mall in Hazel, with around 100 vendors. Owner Ray Gough closed up shop February 14th. Gough says the closure was a protest against the city's amended business license ordinance.

This isn't a new argument. In late 2007, the city council amended its business license ordinance to require all people doing business in the city of Hazel, including vendors in antique malls and flea markets, to pay a $25 annual fee. The city also required antique mall owners to turn over a list of vendor names and addresses, which the city planned to use to contact vendors about the license fee. Shortly after, Gough sued the city and the council, alleging the ordinance was a targeted attack on his business, an overstepping of the council's authority, and an unreasonable law.

Gough declined to be recorded. The manager of Gough's store Crystal Green spoke for him. She says because the store has refused to comply with the ordinance, they faced a fine of fifty dollars a day per vendor every day after February 15th. Green says not turning over the names is more than a matter of principal.

"With it being public record, there's tons of new antique malls in McKenzie, there's places in Murray, and they can go to city hall, and they can request a copy of anyone who's purchased a business license. And so, therefore, they've got the heart of my business. They've got the names of my vendors, they've got their addresses. They can send them letters and recruit their business and take them away from me."

Charlie's has long used its low booth prices as a selling point for potential vendors.

"Electric rates have doubled, the price of minimum wage has doubled, everything has doubled. Yet we don't raise our rent because it will hurt our business. Some say it's only $25. But y'know, if I won't raise my rent two bucks a month to pay for extra help or the extra electricity, y'know what, that two bucks makes a difference."

Hazel Mayor Kerry Vasseur says the amendment was simply a clarification of who needed a business license. He says vendors should always have purchased a license; now it's in writing. Vasseur calls Gough's lawsuit against the city frivolous.

"Costs to the city of thousands and thousands of dollars to fight this regarding a $25 per year business license. So, that's why I have a bit of difficulty with it's been a head-scratcher, trying to figure out why anyone would want to spend the amount of money that they have in fighting an ordinance that the city certainly has a right to be able to do."

Charlie's was the last large antique mall in Hazel. The other, Heart of Hazel, closed in December due to economic problems. Vasseur says he doesn't understand the rationale behind Gough's decision to board up and paint his building black.

"But he has the right to do it. And we have the right to continue to enforce the ordinance, which we will do."

At least one antique store owner who declined to have comments recorded says the city may be better off without Charlie's. The owner of Horse's Mouth Antiques, who didn't want to be named in this story, claims owner Ray Gough has been a difficult neighbor for the past seventeen years, starting arguments and holding grudges. The owner says business will be a lot smoother without Gough in the mix.

Blue Moon Antiques Co-Owner Angie Lovett says Hazel has garnered a reputation as an antique mecca, and she worries about the future of that reputation with the closure of Charlie's.

"And the antique stores that are here are wonderful. I'm not saying that they're not. It's just that you need enough of them to make it worth the efforts to spend the day. It's not just the antiques, it's an afternoon or a daily retreat for them."

Lovett says when the ordinance amendment became an issue, she tried to find similar examples of cities in western Kentucky, Tennessee, or Southern Illinois, that charge vendors a fee in addition to mall owners.

"And I can't find any other city with the exception of Murray that does this. Normally it is, from what I understand, the people that I've talked with and I've called the other malls they pay a business license, then their vendors do not have to pay an additional fee."

Mayor Vasseur says it doesn't matter what other cities do. He says each city has the right to decide how to interpret laws. This is the way the city of Hazel thinks is best for them.

"And in this case I think we're being fair. It's straight across the board, and I personally believe if you do it for one, you do it for all. But when you have 99 percent compliance on this and one person not, you have to ask yourself the question, is the ordinance the issue or is the individual the issue who chooses not to abide by it."

Pat Armstrong owns Memory Lane Antiques. When the amendment passed, Armstrong had ten vendors in her mall. She left the pay decision up to them. If they wanted to disclose their names and pay the fee, she would go ahead with compliance. They all complied. Armstrong's down to two vendors now. She says that's not related to the ordinance, just normal attrition. While the ordinance hasn't affected her negatively, she believes the closure of Charlie's will. Armstrong blames a city council and mayor she says don't care about the antique stores in Hazel.

"They think they're going to have new businesses come in, I say God bless em. But this has been on the map for 20 years as an antique capitol. And for the city to say it dudn't matter, we were here before the antique stores were and we'll be here afterward, a little shortsighted."

Memory Lane may not be around much longer. Armstrong's selling her store after ten years of operation.

"Like I say, the joy's gone out of it for me. It's not . . . I don't know who they're going to start on next."

Some, like Angie Lovett, say the disagreement centers on Gough and Mayor Vasseur.

"This has become it's a personal issue between two men in which the entire city is caught in the middle. I believe that elected officials have a different responsibility than individuals do to a community. And I think that if Hazel is going to survive, I think the businesses that are here, and the ones that may come in the future, I think that should be a consideration of the town and what they legislate."

Vasseur says this isn't a personal issue for him.

"Now if it's anything personal for anybody else, I don't know. From me personally, from my standpoint, I could care less of what happens, if I just want things to go well for Hazel. I want things to go well for Hazel businesses."

Vasseur says he just wants this to be over with. Lawyers for both sides have debated settlement proposals for over a year. Last summer, the city's lawyer drew up a proposal which would allow Gough to pay an annual lump sum and not turn over names. Gough was ready to accept, but the council voted it down. In January, Gough offered to turn over names and addresses, but changed his mind a few weeks later. In the most recent settlement proposal, Gough offered the city $12,000 to cover legal fees, and $3,000 for an annual master business license. The council voted to decline. Vasseur says they won't accept anything less than full compliance with the current ordinance. Charlie's Manager Crystal Green says she's still hoping for a resolution in her favor.

"I mean, I've been asking all my people to stick with me till the end of the month, just in case. But once those people move out, you're looking at a business that seven days a week, 362 days a year, that I've worked to build up and with today's economy, the recession, and everything else, you won't ever get it built back up."

Gough isn't as hopeful as Green. He says Charlie's is dead. Gough doesn't plan to sell or lease the building. He says he's moving forward with other business ventures. The lawsuit between Gough and the city of Hazel continues. But the city too is moving forward. Already, a local businessman is moving into part of the former Heart of Hazel antique mall. State Line Ranch and Home owner Larry Ward of Hazel is renting space for a store that will sell Motorcycle apparel, flea market items, and antiques. Ward says that store will open in early March.
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