I opened my first practice, St. Louis Cat Clinic, in 1992. The location was great. The clinic was nestled in a strip mall
with a popular auto repair business on the corner and apartments, a restaurant, and a military recruiter in the back. Across
the street, at the intersection of two busy roads, was an even larger shopping center, complete with a national-chain pharmacy,
a grocery store, a medical building, and a JCPenney.
The building itself was a winner, too—and a steal. Our leasehold was built with a basement equal in size to the main floor,
but we paid rent only on the square footage of the first floor. Of course, I built everything out.
5 lessons in fighting back
We opened with just three patients: my own cats. Seven years later, St. Louis Cat Clinic had grown into a successful business
with 3,000 clients and nine employees.
What a great spot. Too bad we couldn't stay.
WATCHING FOR BAD SIGNS
The day after New Year's in 2000, I was chatting with a fellow shopping center tenant, the owner of a religious clothing and
retail store. He told me that his request for a 10-year lease renewal had been denied and that his store was now on a month-to-month
agreement. The agent for the leasing management company had told him a commercial developer wanted to tear down our shopping
center and build a pharmacy on the corner.
Not too long after that, I found out that a second business owner in our strip mall had been put on a monthly lease. Then
a neighboring attorney retired and vacated the center, but no "For Lease" sign appeared in the window. No one called the current
tenants to explain what was going on. The leasing company was silent, and I was worried.
REACHING OUT FOR HELP
I knew that if a developer was making big plans for this busy intersection, the local government would have to know about
it. So I called the ward alderman of my district for information. What was going in on our corner, and when was it going to
happen? He denied any knowledge of a commercial redevelopment project at the clinic site. I attended a meeting of the local
Small Business Association. The featured speaker was the president of the board of aldermen. I asked him about the rumored
redevelopment project. He hadn't heard anything, he told me.
The denials only made me more nervous. I felt a sense of impending doom. But I took action and wrote a letter to my clients
about the rumored redevelopment. I asked them to call and write letters to their ward aldermen on behalf of the clinic. Many
of them did, questioning their local representatives about the plan and asking to keep St. Louis Cat Clinic in their area.
But my clients received the same denials: There was no project planned for the site.
By this time, reporters had started asking questions. Articles appeared in the newspaper. But the ward aldermen continued
to deny any knowledge of the redevelopment. It was a broken record I thought would never stop skipping.
At last, one year after the rumors first started, the development company acknowledged the redevelopment plan. The president
of the development firm said the current tenants would be taken care of, but I didn't receive any kind of an offer.
LOOKING INTO THE LAW
It was time to talk to my attorney. I told him the clinic had a 15-year lease with seven years remaining on the leasehold
space. He told me there was nothing I could do: Just accept the month-to-month rental—and the eventual loss of my practice.
Luckily, one of my clients came through. During an appointment while I was examining his cat, he mentioned that he was an
attorney and listened to my situation. "Hire me," he said. That was the turning point.
My new attorney recommended a proactive approach, but things weren't looking good. Clients who lived in the apartments behind
us were being pushed out, and that building sat empty. The businesses in the strip center were following in their wake.