Questions persist amid hope for more openness

The Shawano Leader/October 17, 2004
By Tim Ryan

It's not that the community in and around Shawano has never been told what Dr. R.C. Samanta Roy's plans are. Those plans and the reasons for his property purchases have been stated and restated. The properties are intended to fund the building and operation of an international boarding school, to be called the Samanta Roy Institute of Science and Technology, the community has been told.

Representatives for Samanta Roy have said that on several occasions, most recently at a July 7 Common Council meeting.

But with many of those properties sitting vacant, there is skepticism in the community. Even though they've been told, people still ask what Samanta Roy's plans are.

"A lot of purchases are being made and there must be some overall design or plan for what it is they're doing but it's anyone's guess," said Bob Dumke, owner of The Cobbler's Closet, 118 S. Main St.

"He has a legal right to buy them," said Jim Warren, of Warren Nett & Associates and chairman of the Business Improvement District. As a Realtor, Warren has also handled some of the property sales to Samanta Roy.

"I was involved in selling a couple of buildings," Warren said. He noted that the buildings are not in use but are being minimally maintained.

"I guess the concern of the BID Board would be that, particularly in his purchases on Main Street, is that they haven't been cleaned up and put into business operation," Warren said. "I'm sure that was the intent and idea but nothing has happened."

Steve Sengstock, director of Shawano County Economic Progress, Inc. (SCEPI) said he has never dealt with Samanta Roy and so couldn't comment on his specific property purchases.

However, Sengstock said, "Any building that's not operating, regardless of who's owning it, is a big issue because what happens is, it's not creating any revenue for anybody, it's not generating any investment spending into the area."

Warren said that only time will resolve the issue, and until the properties are developed it's a wait-and-see situation.

But in the meantime, some are concerned about the future.

"I worry about some of the economic impact," said Doug Knope, owner of Knope Heating and Air Conditioning. "You don't know the economic impact of buying buildings and boarding them up."

Knope also made the point that not everything the group has told the city about its purchases and the time line for opening businesses has come to pass.

"He's told the city a lot of things and not followed through," said Knope.

Some think the concern is overblown and is just grist for the gossip mill.

"They can't find out his business," said Doug Burris, who owns a variety of businesses and properties in the area. He adding that he also keeps silent when negotiating a property purchase.

"I know that I don't disclose mine because as soon as I've made an offer on a building, two or three offers would come in before I could even sign the papers," he said. "So I don't ever disclose when I do it."

Dave Zander of Zander Studio said that when he sold his office property, Samanta Roy was one of several potential buyers. He said he sent letters to everyone who was in the market and had no qualms about considering Samanta Roy. He said he was barraged with questions about whether he was going to sell to Samanta Roy.

"The first question out of people's mouths when the For Sale signs went up was, 'are you going to sell to Rama?'" Zander said. The property was ultimately sold to someone else but Zander said the questions were inappropriate.

"I would love to see the buildings in downtown Shawano full of businesses," Zander said. "But I don't think we as a community have a right to say to anyone they can't own property."

Guy Hoffman publishes Shawano Businesses for Shawano, which has roughly 30 small businesses grouping together to save advertising costs and position themselves against big corporate players like Wal-Mart. However, Samanta Roy's name has come up in conversations with some of those businesses, he said, even though his properties are not the publication's focus.

"The only concern that I hear really is that people don't know what's going on," he said. "You constantly hear, 'it's going to happen,' and two years later, the buildings are still sitting empty."

Hoffman said some of the people he works with have sold property to Samanta Roy.

"The concern is not with him personally but simply the unknown factor. We have so many empty buildings sitting here. What in the world is going on? That's the question nobody has an answer to," he said.

Hoffman said the situation with Samanta Roy's properties has affected the plans of at least one business owner in town.

"His concerns about what was going on with all the empty businesses were included in his thoughts about whether he was going to try to grow or expand his business because he simply didn't know what was going on in Shawano," Hoffman said.

"The more businesses that sit empty - that's the bottom line - the more businesses that sit empty, that's how business people are going to get hurt," Hoffman said. "When there's storefront property on Main Street sitting empty that hurts everybody on Main Street."

Charlene Helms, manager of the Shawano Downtown Business Association, said the issue is not about Samanta Roy. She said downtown merchants are interested only in thriving businesses and not who is running them.

"I truly believe that no matter who buys a building, they shouldn't be discriminated against," Helms said. "On the other hand, I understand the fears of people who see a large amount of activity in buying up buildings and don't understand it. We are all afraid of the unknown, and since we don't know what's happening, that's what we're going to be concerned with."

Helms said that empty buildings on Main Street owned by Samanta Roy are not of any greater concern than other empty buildings.

"I have always seen that the Shawano Downtown Business Association has always treated representatives (of Samanta Roy) that have come to our meetings with respect, and have not asked them any questions that they wouldn't ask any other owner of an empty building," Helms said.

Business leaders say there is no question of discrimination involved.

"I don't think it's discrimination. It's the secrecy," said Knope. "Nobody knows what he's doing and until they get a clear picture, there's not going to be a lot of support."

While he did not discuss the issue of alleged discrimination, Warren noted that Samanta Roy has faced some resistance in trying to develop other properties.

"He had a building he had bought, a house close to the road and he was repairing it," Warren said. "He was trying to put a new porch or something that was falling off and they wouldn't even let him do that. There is a lot of resistance to that man from the town boards."

Dumke conceded that the businesses, once they are opened, could have very positive effects on the community.

"If the enterprises are designed to provide good service and products, that goes to the general well-being of the community," he said. "It's just that no one knows, and there are too many aspects of it that have gone unanswered."

Dumke said Samanta Roy's group shares some of the responsibility for the public skepticism. He said that while the group's plans have been stated there has been little action on those plans.

"There's been no evidence of their overall plan so it's hard to support something that's secret," Dumke said.

Most business leaders in the community agreed that there was one thing that could help alleviate the skepticism and suspicion some in the community have. They feel Samanta Roy would be doing himself and his group a favor by being more open.

"I think that would solve a lot of it," Burris said. "After he has purchased a building he ought to come forward and state what his plans are, his time frame and so forth. It would really put a lot of this to rest. He hasn't been disclosing a lot of that because it isn't anybody else's business."

Sengstock said that SCEPI - which has a goal of creating jobs by attracting new business and helping existing businesses expand - would be available to help Samanta Roy with some of his properties.

"I would hope that he's aware of our organization and how we might be able to work with him in developing some of those properties," Sengstock said. "I hope that if he sees this story and he sees SCEPI and what we do in creating jobs and helping develop businesses - we'd be willing to step in and do what we can do to help develop a business if he's interested in doing so.

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