Brenda Lovell-Wakut used to run Vanessa's in Tremont, but she was a tenant there, and she wanted to own a piece of the city. So she and her husband bought an old building on Denison and turned it into Lovelee's, an Italian American restaurant with a bar. The inside is bright, and everything is new. A Cleveland girl with a frizzy mop of blond hair, she says she and her husband have poured more than a half-million into the place.
Outside the door, you can see another way of doing business in Cleveland. Two billboards, owned by Clear Channel, are there by virtue of a lease signed in 1996 by the building's previous owner. The lease says Clear Channel will pay $310 per year in exchange for keeping the billboards there, and it rolls over every five years unless someone cancels. Brenda has been trying to cancel since buying the building. Clear Channel keeps sending her checks for $223.20 a year, but she never cashes them. She writes "VOID" across them and puts them in a file.
She has a copy of a letter she sent to Clear Channel in June 2005, indicating that she wants the billboards removed. "Failure will result in taking the billboards down at Clear Channel's expense," she wrote. The company denies having received the letter, but Clear Channel Outdoor's regional real estate representative Damir Kosec came out that summer to see the billboards and assured her that they'd be removed at the end of that lease term, in 2006. She trusted what she heard. But when it was time to take them down, she got into a frustrating exchange, as one of the world's biggest communications companies bullied her small business. Lovell-Wakut has a pile of letters about 2 inches thick, documenting what she calls "three years of bullshit."
"They have no lease," says Lovell-Wakut. "They have no business on my property."
A 2006 letter from Clear Channel Outdoor representative Scott Rowland was mind-bogglingly disconnected from the fact that the company was told to remove its signs prior to the end of the last lease term, now three years ago. "First, you have clearly expressed your desire to have our sign structures removed," he wrote. "Second, I have told you that while there doesn't appear to be a quick fix, Clear Channel Outdoor would be willing to try to accommodate your need to repair your building. In order to do this, we would seek to obtain permits to move structures."
Kosec is no longer with the company. Clear Channel Outdoor vice president David Yale refused to comment on what he called "the real estate aspect" of the business, though he attended Board of Zoning Appeals hearings when Bob Wakut tried to lobby for the signs' removal.
Wakut explained to BOZA that his building has suffered water damage that contractors couldn't fix because the billboards, which almost touch the building on both sides, are too close for the equipment to operate. Despite this, Clear Channel was unresponsive. In the meantime, he and his son dug around the building by hand and waterproofed it themselves. "They'll just keep blowing us off," Wakut told BOZA. "They blew our lawyer off."
As far as Lovell-Wakut is concerned, Clear Channel has been trespassing for three years. She sued them. They countersued, claiming she had prevented them from changing the sign. She's not optimistic about her odds in court. "They don't even abide by the law," she says. "They're above the law. That's how Clear Channel got rich, by taking advantage of the ignorant and the poor."