Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Pizza shop forced out for on-ramp

Virgil and Leigh Wilson have spent more than a decade building their pizza business on T.P. White Drive in Jacksonville, but the state Highway Department has told them they must vacate the premises and start all over again someplace else.

The Highway Department will put in an on-ramp at Hwy. 67/167 on the site where the Wilsons’ Pizza Company restaurant now stands on the north part of town.

At most, the Wilsons might get $20,000 for relocation expenses, but they think that’s not nearly enough. It will take them years to re-establish themselves elsewhere, and they will lose thousands of dollars before they get back on their feet even if they find a suitable location.

The Wilsons don’t own the building — the Highway Department will negotiate with the owner separately — but the couple had hoped to sell the business in a few years and retire.

But now they can’t afford to retire. Virgil Wilson, who is 62, might have to work another 10 years before he can sell out.
Randy Ort, a spokesman for the Highway Department, says the state isn’t trying to hurt anybody’s business, but the Pizza Company happens unfortunately to be in the middle of the planned northbound on-ramp, which will accommodate traffic coming from both directions on T.P. White Drive.

Federal law sets limits on compensating businesses, and since federal funds will pay for the ramp, the state cannot pay more than the $20,000 maximum.

The Wilsons have nothing against progress, but they’re unhappy at the way the Highway Department is pushing them out and, as far as they’re concerned, offering them only token compensation.

“They’ll hire movers to move the equipment,” he says. “They’ll pay for electricians to put in three-phase electricity. They might pay for a new sign.”

“They haven’t changed the funding formula since 1987,” Wilson says, referring to the way the state figures small businesses should be compensated.

In other words, the formula hasn’t changed in almost 20 years. Any reasonable person would think the Wilsons have built a business worth at least $50,000, but Ort says there’s no way the couple will ever get that much money from the state.
“I’m not asking to get rich,” Wilson says. “I’m asking them to be fair about it.”

“The thing that bugs me is that we’re going to have downtime before we can reopen someplace else,” Wilson continues. “They won’t pay for that. We’ve got key employees we’ll have to keep paying before we find a location. It’ll cost me $40,000 to $50,000.”

Wilson still works 80 hours a week, and his wife about 50 hours. He himself makes 200 pizzas a week and gives a lot of them away to Little League teams, schools and newly arrived airmen.

Although others have tried and failed running a restaurant there, only the Wilsons have succeeded at that location. But they don’t own the building, so they have nothing to show for their hard work except an eviction notice from the state.
“I fought for this country,” says Wilson, an Army veteran. “I’ve been shot at. I even have a Bronze Star.”

Yet the state will not recognize the sweat and equity the Wilsons have poured into their business. Corporations get millions of dollars in incentives to come to Arkansas, but small businesses seldom get more than a pat on the back for creating jobs, paying taxes and helping the community.

“If you’re going to move me after 11 years, there should be some compensation. The governor spends $400,000 on his airplane, and we get almost nothing,” Wilson says.