Peterbrooke Deal Needs to Be Sweet One for Taxpayers

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Byline: Karen Brune Mathis

It sounds so good, doesn't it? A chocolate factory downtown, possibly mingling its sweet scents with the roasting coffee aromas from the Maxwell House plant. But to avoid biting off more than they can chew, the city and Peterbrooke Chocolatier need to make sure the deal is a good one for taxpayers.

The deal has been cooking since May, when Jacksonville-based Peterbrooke proposed to buy the Haydon Burns Library and turn it into a chocolate factory and museum. Peterbrooke's proposal came in second during the city's bidding process, but moved to the front burner after the top bidder bowed out in November.

Peterbrooke and Jacksonville Economic Development Commission executives met last week to start negotiations, but both sides want to reserve comment until they meet again Feb. 15.

Peterbrooke's proposal last spring sparked questions from some observers about its projections, including financial estimates for its new franchising plans. It projected that its sales, at $3.46 million in 2004, would in a "conservative scenario" reach $40.7 million in three years, based on leases, franchise fees and royalties and merchandise sales to franchises.

Peterbrooke President Peter Behringer said Thursday that the company has sold two franchise locations in Jacksonville since November and has several deals in the works. The company owns eight stores, primarily in the Jacksonville area. He referred other questions to spokesman Chris Sams, who said Peterbrooke was "not going to make any comments until we have our next meeting with the city."

A city spokeswoman said last week that Peterbrooke's proposal remained "largely the same." So, questions remain.

I can't imagine that either Peterbrooke and its relatively new president or the JEDC and its new executive director would want to strike a sour deal. …