Last summer Donna Davis won , an honor that came with $25,000 in start-up money to open a bakery called Sweet Abundance.
She was also promised a year’s free rent in the Bayfair Food Court and other help worth more than $200,000.
At the time it seemed a dream come true.
Now Davis says has turned into a nightmare.
“I’m in financial ruin because of that contest,” says Davis, who lives in Castro Valley’s Five Canyons neighborhood. “My hair is falling out. I’m losing my health.”
Madison Marquette, which owns Bayfair Center and 79 other malls nationwide, stood by the contest process.
“Bayfair Center has been committed to fostering local entrepreneurial spirit by hosting the Retail Star competition for over three years,” a Madison Marquette spokeswoman said via email. “In 2011, Ms. Donna Davis was selected as the Retail Star. Despite numerous good faith efforts by Bayfair Center, Ms. Davis elected not to open her business within the center.”
Davis tells a different tale in a five-page letter to San Leandro city officials. She furnished a copy to Patch.
In brief Davis says that:
- During the competition, the rules prevented her from seeking outside financing. Then, after she won the contest, she discovered that her lender of choice didn't think the Food Court was a good location.
- After she won the contest, she was told that the $25,000 in seed money could not be used to buy the bakery equipment she need. This took her by surprise especially because she couldn’t get other financing.
- Bayfair was supposed to spend about $200,000 building out the food court location to suit her bakery, Davis says. But she says there were $40,000 in costs that were her responsibility that she only learned about after winning the contest.
- Bayfair promised her a year of free rent. But when that expired, the mall initially sought $5,000 a month for the space, whereas she had stated in her contest entry that she had envisioned paying $2,500 a month.
- Davis was supposed to open Sweet Abundance on or before Black Friday. That was less than 120 days after her contest win. She said she asked for a reprieve to open in January 2012. When Bayfair said no, she quit her job in an effort to meet that deadline, losing income that further added to her financial distress.
City business development officer Jeff Kay says Davis met with him and City Manager Chris Zapata and both of them spoke with Bayfair officials urging “an amicable resolution.”
But that hasn’t happened, at least from Davis' view.
The Castro Valley woman has consulted a lawyer but doesn’t think she’s a match in court for Madison Marquette, a privately held corporation with malls in 13 states.
“It’s a David versus Goliath story,” says Davis.
She went public to put pressure on Madison Marquette and also to tell other small businesses what happened to her.
Madison Marquette says it did not host a retail star contest at Bayfair this year because it did not have space for the winner.
But the company is “still considering the program for this property and others throughout the company,“ a spokesperson said.
Editor's note: Hear Donna Davis tell her story in the accompanying video.