Gary charter bus owner says he may hit the road
By Carole Carlson email@example.com/302-0949 June 15, 2014 9:02PM
Josephine and Larry Webb stand in their "mobile office," a charter bus behind a former Ford dealership on Grant Street in Gary. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 17, 2014 11:10AM
GARY — Larry and Josephine Webb are tired of running their charter bus and limousine business out of a bus while they haggle with the city over rent at an old auto dealership.
They say they’re weighing options to move Eclipse Charters & Tours and Eclipse Limousine to another city if they can’t use the former car dealership they moved to after the city squashed their plan to run the business at a closed Gary middle school.
They can park their buses behind the old dealership, but can’t use the garage bays or office facilities because the building has no plumbing or electricity.
The Webbs moved their business to the former Tyson Ford dealership at 3333 Grant St. two years ago, but still don’t have a lease on the 7.5-acre site the city purchased for $10 from the Ford Motor Co. in August 2013.
At the time, city officials rejoiced at the deal, saying the property sits in the middle of its ambitious University Park project and would be attractive to developers, even though it can’t be developed. The land came with a restrictive covenant banning the property from being disturbed because it’s contaminated by auto-related toxics. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires the toxins be removed before the land can be touched.
Nonetheless, the city’s Redevelopment Commission put the site up for rent last year. Just one bid came in — from Webb, the current tenant who offered $200 a month. It was a far cry from the $6,500 the city wanted.
“The Redevelopment Commission and staff is committed to working with them to come up with a viable choice to make the Ford location work for them,” said Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who met June 9 with the Webbs.
“I guess they were assuming by now we’d fix the building up,” said Larry Webb, who did install an electrical service panel that cost him $7,500. He doesn’t want to hook it up until he has a lease with the city.
Webb thinks the city should install the plumbing and electrical components, long removed by scrappers. A storm last month blew the glass out of the showroom windows and the city responded by partially boarding the windows up, but broken glass still litters the showroom floor.
“We’re at the point that we’re tired of going around in circles,” said Josephine Webb, noting the brutal winter was especially difficult on the business. “We can’t continue to meet clients in a bus or in a parking lot,” she said.
“We came to the table. They wanted this, they wanted that. They keep stringing us along, now it’s at the point I told my husband it’s not enough.”
She said the business has 20 employees, while she and her husband have resorted to keeping their books in a room in their house because they don’t have an office. “It’s very inconvenient. I’m surprised we’re still in business,” she said.
While they’re jousting with the city, Josephine Webb said their customers have remained loyal. “The people of Gary have stuck with us. They still charter buses and limos for proms.”
When the couple opened their business in 1999, they said there were eight charter bus companies. Today, they say they’re the only one left in Gary.
Larry Webb said he’s looking for a new building in neighboring cities near the interstate and hopes to move before winter.
The Webbs’ saga began in 2011 when they sold their existing Gary site, at 9340 Melton Road, to the National Park Service.
They purchased the shuttered Beckman Middle School from the Gary Community School Corp. for $100,000.
Webb said the school, which closed in 2004, seemed a good fit even though vandals had already ripped out chunks of the building’s walls to steel metals and scribble graffiti. He even envisioned opening a commercial driving school in the building.
Because the property is zoned residential, the Webbs needed a variance. The Gary Board of Zoning Appeals approved the variance request in October 2011.
By then, however, some neighbors began to oppose the business, saying it would increase pollution and noise in the neighborhood. In January 2012, the city council unanimously rejected the variance and Webb vowed to leave the city.
Meanwhile, freshly elected Freeman-Wilson who told citizens, “Gary was open for business” following her landslide win, brokered a deal to move Webb to the old auto dealership.
The mayor said last week she’s trying to get to the bottom of any confusion or misunderstanding with the Webbs. “I saw them building their lives in the city of Gary and the automatic desire is to try to help.”
Freeman-Wilson told Webb she understood his frustration and asked for two weeks to work an arrangement.
“It’s an economic decision, I can’t just give him the building,” Freeman-Wilson said.
The mayor wants Webb to clean up debris at the abandoned school at 1420 W. 23rd Ave. Webb should have had his variance in place before he bought the building, Freeman-Wilson said.
Webb says he’s tired of waiting.
“If I stay here any longer, in another year I’ll be out of business. It’s all over. There’s no more time to waste.”