Twelve Tribes considering other properties

Will not pursue 175-177 Main St. purchase, group member says

Daily Star (Oneonta, NY)/August 24, 2005
By Jake Palmateer

Oneonta — The Twelve Tribes is no longer interested in purchasing 175-177 Main St. and instead is eyeing other downtown properties.

Twelve Tribes member Ken Hart said Tuesday the group still wants to open a Common Ground Cafe in Oneonta, but he said it won't be at the building occupied by the Body and Soul Lifestyles Center.

Although Hart would not say where the Twelve Tribes was looking on Main Street, he said the group's plan has not been derailed despite failing to get its site plan approved.

"The street's full of all kinds of possibilities," Hart said.

The city's website lists eight commercial, retail or office spaces available on Main Street.

Peter Clark of Wilber and Clark Enterprises Inc. confirmed he was no longer negotiating with the Twelve Tribes for the sale of the firm's three-story building.

"We've decided that we're going to keep the building," Clark said. "They're looking at something else."

The Twelve Tribes is a communal religious organization that announced in April plans to purchase 175-177 Main St. and turn the first two floors into a restaurant and bakery.

But the group failed to get its plan approved by the city Planning Commission at a packed June 15 meeting marked by an hour-and-a-half public discussion that often focused on the group's religious beliefs and practices.

Because it appeared the group members were not going to get approval for a restaurant plan at the site, Clark said he had to let them out of the contract.

"We did not want to make them feel forced into a no-man's land," Clark said.

The group has about 3,500 members worldwide and operates about 30 businesses, including several Common Ground Cafes in the northeastern United States.

Clark said the Twelve Tribes had entered into a contract for the sale of 175-177 Main St. but never closed on the property.

He would not say which building or buildings the Twelve Tribes was looking at, but he did say that one location was not in an existing retail space.

The two Planning Commission members who voted against the restaurant site plan said they were in favor of keeping 175-177 Main St. as a retail space.

During the June 15 vote, the Twelve Tribes received three votes in favor of the project, but one commissioner abstained and another was absent. Four votes were needed for approval of the plan.

The absent commissioner has said she was in favor of preserving retail space downtown.

Clark said it will be interesting to see how the Twelve Tribes will fare in attempts at opening a restaurant elsewhere on Main Street.

"It's a free market. They're nice people," Clark said. "I think they would be a nice addition to Main Street."

Clark said 175-177 Main St. is no longer for sale.

"This is a nice building," Clark said. "We're more than glad to keep it."

Critics have called the Twelve Tribes a controlling cult that practices child abuse and violates child labor laws, but group members say they are living a deeply religious communal lifestyle.

The Twelve Tribes was investigated by the state Attorney General's Office and the state Department of Labor for allegedly breaking child labor laws.

In 2001, members of the group were found on two occasions to have violated a law barring children younger than 16 from working in factories, Department of Labor officials said, but both cases are under appeal.

The cases involved factory work performed by 15-year-olds in Greene County.

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