~ Minister declines to comment ~
SIMPSON BAY–District 721 says while it has operational and economic licences to operate a bar, restaurant and nightclub, and the payment of its fees are up to date, since its opening in mid-December 2020 it is being constantly harassed under the pretext of things not being in order, while the harassment is really about the music it plays to entertain its guests.
Investor Mario Di Palma, who owns the establishment, says the harassment of District 721 is being orchestrated by Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication (TEATT) Ludmila de Weever, who is the neighbour immediately to the left of the establishment.
Minister de Weever declined to comment on the allegations when asked on Tuesday.
A number of questions were also sent to a senior TEATT official, but the official said permission was not granted for answers to be provided.
Di Palma says the minister has an issue with the volume of the music the establishment plays for its customers and he believes she is abusing her power to force him to fold his operations, which will cause him to lose his US $1.2 million investment.
In addition to complaining about the music and allegedly frequently sending inspectors and the police to the now-closed business, which had been open for about four weeks, Di Palma says some customers who parked their vehicles at the adjacent property have also had their vehicles blocked in.
The Daily Herald was privy to some of the correspondences from the minister to representatives of District 721 over some of these issues.
The establishment says it is located in a commercial part of Simpson Bay and believes that it should be able to reasonably entertain its guests through music as is stipulated in its licence. According to Di Palma, the land where District 721 is located and the property to the right of the establishment belong to the minister’s uncle, while the property to the left belongs to the minister’s father.
Di Palma said he has been investing funds in the establishment for the past three years when his father along with another partner were developing the facility.
The establishment that was based at the location prior to its being occupied by the Di Palmas was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Over the past year, Di Palma took over from his father, and accelerated the construction work, eventually reopening “Docta Catering N.V.,” doing business as District 721, on December 18, 2020.
The establishment holds an operational licence and an economic licence to operate a bar, restaurant, nightclub and catering facilities. The payment of its fees for these are up to date. Throughout the three-year process of constructing the establishment, Di Palma said he had no indication that his neighbour had qualms about its presence.
According to Di Palma, the harassment took a turn for the worse on its opening night when the minister requested that the volume of the music be lowered. This was done. Since then, the establishment has been visited by police and inspectors on multiple occasions.
Complaints had also been made about customers parking at night in front of the property on which the minister is located, with some customers being blocked on some occasions.
The establishment said it had no issues with inspectors from other departments. However, TEATT inspectors constantly show up at the location and the establishment says they seem to be creating issues and nit-picking about matters.
On one occasion, prior to the opening, he said TEATT Inspectors told the establishment that the toilet needed to be ventilated. Two fans were then placed in the toilet for ventilation. They were then told they did not need fans, they needed an extractor. This was installed. They were then told that they needed to place air conditioning in the toilet and were told that the sink in the toilet was too large and that the sink appeared to be one where meat would be prepared for consumption.
Di Palma said it is ludicrous for anyone to think that an upscale establishment like District 721 would prepare meat in its toilet when it has sufficient hygienic facilities to do this. He said the sink is simply part of the décor and feeling that the establishment wanted to create in the bathroom.
District 721 was also told that the location at its cocktail bar where its licences were displayed was not sufficient and that the licences needed to be hung at the entrance of the establishment. This was rectified and the licences are now hung at the entrance exposed to the elements.
This newspaper visited four restaurants with bars in the area, all of which had their licences displayed in their bar.
In explaining the developments that led to the closure, Di Palma said the establishment had received a call from a TEATT inspector on Sunday, January 10, requesting attendance at a meeting at the Government Building on Monday, January 11. When a written request was received to attend the meeting on Thursday, January 14, the establishment showed up.
Several issues were raised in the meeting and in a subsequent letter (delivered at the time of closure), District 721 representatives were informed that the establishment did not have a permit to sell liquor and food, weak liquor and alcohol-free beverages; that it did not have the required permit visibly displayed; that the type of licence granted was not clearly marked either on top of or on the side of one of the outside main entrance doors; that the name of the permittee is not clearly marked either on top of or on the side of one of the outside main entrance doors; that an age prohibition is not clearly marked either on top of or one the side of one of the outside main entrance doors and that making music and that performances or other actions for the public, or providing opportunity to dance or allow dancing without a permit and other businesses than those permitted by the Minister were being carried out in the establishment.
Di Palma explained that District 721 is set up like a combination of open-air and semi-open-air food court where, instead of serving guests from one part of the facility, the services are spread out. This prevents overcrowding and gives guests a chance to enjoy their preference.
For example, guests can order pizzas at the pizza station and eat at that section of the establishment; kebab and tapas at another section of the establishment; exotic themed drinks at the tiki bar; and more drinks at the cocktail bar.
The nightclub is still under construction at an additional investment of US $200,000, and is not yet operational. He explained that “District 721,” is the “doing business as” (DBA) name under which the company “Docta Catering N.V.” operates.
Regarding the age prohibition, he said the nightclub is not yet open and as he operates a restaurant, persons of any age cannot reasonably be barred from dining there. The bar stations state that no alcohol will be sold to persons under the age of 18.
This was explained during the meeting and Di Palma said the meeting ended with TEATT Inspectorate officials informing District 721 that they would be informed in writing of violations and would be given time to rectify them. To their surprise, however, that same night a team of inspectors and police showed up at the location around 7:15pm and informed the establishment that it was being closed.
District 721 representatives said they had not received a response when they asked the Inspectors what happened to the agreement made in the meeting hours earlier.
Di Palma said guests, some of whom were in the middle of eating, had to leave and were not given a chance to finish their meals or settle their bills. He said the entire ordeal had been traumatising and one inspector in particular had been aggressive, unprofessional, threatening and dictatorial.
At one point, one of the inspectors dialled the minister’s phone. This was said to have been captured on camera and Di Palma wondered, if the minister recused herself from the matter due to a conflict of interest, why an inspector was calling her during a control for their closure.
According to District 721, when Member of Parliament (MP) Rolando Brison arrived on the scene as a customer, the incident was already in progress and Brison questioned the inspectors.
Di Palma said he had refused to shut the gate of the establishment and had informed the inspector that they would have to close it, as they were the ones ordering the closure.
An additional officer was eventually called and when he arrived on the scene he informed the establishment that he was in charge of the entire operation. He informed parties that he was not there to talk and that he had the authority to check the papers of everyone. District 721 did not want him to do this because everyone would then be spending the night in jail, including Di Palma.
The District 721 owner told this newspaper that the papers of his employees are in order and he is in possession of a director’s licence.
The closure of his operations has had a negative impact, as staffers and everyone else, including subcontractors who benefit from the economic activity created by the establishment such as security, cleaning personnel, deejays and garbage haulers, amongst others, cannot work and be paid. Prolonged closure will also make him unable to pay his landlord.
“What am I going to do now?” he asked, noting that his business endeavours are also to provide for his family and his children. He said this entire situation sends a bad signal to investors. St. Maarten’s economy, he said, is based on tourism and investors, but he indicated that the country seems to be driving away investors rather than encouraging and nurturing them. He said on multiple occasions he had been told that he is a foreigner and that he should return to where he came from.
He firmly believes that some inspectors are abusing their powers and authority, and that this will be detrimental for the country, because if one of them does not like a particular businessperson and wants to be vindictive, they can make their lives a living hell.
He pledges to not give up and to continue fighting for an opportunity to reopen and not lose his investment. If the matter has to end up in court, this is where Di Palma is willing to take it.
A protest letter was sent to TEATT on Monday requesting an explanation of some of the points mentioned in a letter received on closure of the establishment. If no reply is received within 24-48 hours, District 721 said it will be forced to seek legal counsel and will request compensation via financial reimbursement for funds lost due to the closure of the business.
Bron: Daily Herald