A Deep Ellum institution may soon be forced to shut its doors, to make way for a brand new dental school.
Elbow Room is a popular bar and restaurant near Baylor University Medical Center that's been around for generations. In January, Texas A&M University announced its plans to take over the spot and construct its new multi-story dental school.
But the unusual tactic the university is using to go about the process is upsetting a lot of local folks.
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Bar owner Rosie Nagy is three years into her 20-year lease. She thought she was well-protected.
But Texas A&M officials voted several weeks ago that they're willing to use eminent domain procedures to take over the spot. The university has not asked the Texas Attorney General to step in and render an eminent domain decision, but the university's Board of Regents did agree they are willing to go down that path soon.
Elbow Room has been a neighborhood staple for decades. It's a favorite watering hole for Deep Ellum residents, and Dallas' doctors and dentists-to-be.
"After a long week of tests, the whole class would kind of come here and unwind. Build camaraderie. Forget about the tough week we had before," said third-year Texas A&M University Baylor dental student Sebastian East. "It's a great place to let loose. To get ready for the hard work ahead."
"It's kind of like a little oasis for people to get away, feel at home, feel comforted. It's a little bit more than just a bar," said general manager AJ Iammarino.
"I can't tell you how many people we see from Baylor who come here every week because they have someone dying in the hospital, they have nowhere to go, and they need somewhere to get a drink and have someone to talk to," Iammarino said. "Or someone's having a baby at the hospital and they want to have a drink and celebrate with a crowd. We bring them in as a family."
"More than most bars, we're your therapists and your friends," she added, noting the bar's intimate environment and proximity to the hospital.
Iammarino runs a staff of 20 employees. In a few months, she expects to be out of a job. She doesn't know what's next, and she doesn't know when she needs to start preparing to leave.
"It breaks all of our hearts. It's personal for everyone," she said. "They have not told us anything concrete, whatsoever."
Employees say the building owner won't sell, feeling he's getting low-ball offers from the university. The university is threatening to use eminent domain.
"Either way, if he doesn't sell it they're going to take it. That's how I understand it. So either way it's happening," Iammarino said. "It's just a question of when. No one's telling us anything, except that they'll try and give us a full 90 days notice."
Rosie Nagy said she accepts that her days at the Gaston Avenue location may be limited and it's beyond her control, but she's furious at the heavy-handed approach of university lawyers.
"Since January they have moved the date back, and back, and back, and they still don't have a decision made. It's ruining my life," she said.
"They're definitely bullying me. They're powerful. I'm not," Nagy said. "It's definitely a David versus Goliath thing."
"I just want to know what they will do for me. They need to help me move. Help me move and help my 20 employees keep their jobs. Yet I've asked for meeting after meeting with them. And they refuse to meet with me," she said.
Currently the Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry program has nearly 600 students — that includes dental students, dental hygienist students and graduate students.
The new building will allow the school to expand enrollment by up to 25 percent, training hundreds of new dentists and hygienists every year.
“We are training generations of dentists” here in Dallas, according to Communications Director Susan Jackson.
“Increasing our enrollment is of huge benefit—from a public health standpoint — to thousands of Texans every year,” she said.
Jackson said the dentists and student-dentists are behind 100,000 unique patient visits each year. The new building will allow the dentists to conduct an additional 40,000 patient visits each year.
“We certainly understand that the Elbow Room is now put in a very difficult situation,” Jackson said, adding that she was not present at any negotiations or meetings between A&M Attorneys and the property owner.
A spokesperson for Texas A&M University released the following statement to NBC 5:
"As a public institution, we are committed to serving Texans and making judicious use of the money we receive from taxpayers. This has been our guiding philosophy throughout our negotiations regarding the property currently occupied by the Elbow Room.
"The expansion of our dental school, which was approved by the Legislature in 2015, will enable us to better serve Texans, especially those in need, in the Dallas region and beyond. As a result of these new facilities, our capacity for patient visits, which currently number approximately 100,000 per year, is expected to increase by up to 40 percent. Additionally, there is a shortage of dental health care providers in the state of Texas. Our goal in increasing the dental school’s enrollment is to train more dentists while maintaining our position as the nation’s most diverse dental school, so that we can close the dental health care gap and ensure that Texas residents have access to the best and brightest oral health professionals in their own communities throughout the state.
"In January, conscious of the importance of protecting the taxpayers who support us, we began negotiations with the property owner. We believed and continue to believe that an offer of fair market value would be fair to the property owner and consistent with our obligations to Texans.
"The appraiser chosen by the property owner actually came in lower than our appraiser’s value. We offered to pay the higher of the two. Unfortunately, our offer was not accepted.
"When the property owner demanded significantly more than the appraisals could justify, we were duty-bound to reluctantly explore eminent domain, a last resort option.
"As for the tenants who operate the Elbow Room under a lease, we recognize that this puts them in a difficult position and have offered to pay reasonable relocation expenses should they decide to move their bar. In addition, we have promised to give them adequate notice before any move would be necessary.
"As this matter moves through the legal process, it is important not to lose sight of the public need and the public good that can be accomplished with the expansion of the dental school. Thousands of Texans will benefit for generations to come."