What started as a promising cohabitation has become an increasingly bitter dispute between the Middle Earth Music Hall and its upstairs neighbor, Shiloh’s Restaurant. Each has filed suit against the other, and the spat threatens the future of both Bradford, Vermont businesses.
Shiloh’s claims the music from Middle Earth is so loud that it’s driving away customers. Owners Nicole and Miranda Fenoff began withholding rent last July. When landlord Vincent Pacilio sued, the Fenoffs counter-sued, naming both Pacilio and Middle Earth owner Chris Jones as co-defendants for what court documents allege is “constructive eviction” – a concerted effort to drive them out of business.
Nicole Fenoff claimed in an interview that she was “set up” by Pacilio, who “wanted us to do renovations and then take over.”
As for the Middle Earth’s music volume, Fenoff says, “Vince never, ever said it was going to be a problem.” She claims “people told us it was just bluegrass,” but admits that she never actually listened to the sound levels prior to opening Shiloh’s.
“This is not about music,” counters Chris Jones. He says the noise is a “phantom issue” being stoked by David Lund, leader of Victory In Jesus Ministries, who he claims “pulls all the strings” for Shiloh’s, even though he’s not the owner. Jones has named Lund as a co-defendant in his own suit against Shiloh’s.
Jones claims the real purpose of Shiloh’s suit “is to cause as much financial harm as possible” to his business in an attempt to force them out. “I don’t think they ever wanted to run a restaurant, they had eyes on the building,” he says.
Both Nicole Fenoff and David Lund deny Jones’ claim.
“He didn’t realize the strength of the community,” says Jones. “It’s international.” An e-mail appeal sent to Middle Earth patrons has generated a lot of financial support. Two benefit shows to raise money for their legal defense fund have been very successful, with more planned.
“When this first hit the fan, I thought we’d just give up,” says Jones. “But everyone stepped up. There’s gonna be so many benefits, people will get sick of them.”
“I’m overwhelmed,” he adds, noting the encouragement comes from “not just performers, but the community itself, even people who haven’t been our customers. They recognize that it’s an asset to the community.”
On Saturday night, as Phil Celia and Friends jammed onstage, a customer from Norwich approached Jones and handed him a wad of twenties. “I took up a collection at work,” he said. Mike, a bartender who doubles as a sound technician, stuffed his tips into a ceramic vase with a “Legal Defense Fund” card taped to it. “They usually go in there,” he said.
David Lund is a polarizing figure in Bradford. Some in the community claim Victory in Jesus is a religious cult; others praise Lund for his charitable work on behalf of Haitian orphans.
Lund started his evangelical organization in the mid-1980s. He also began a construction company, Nikao Concepts, to provide jobs for his congregants, whom Lund refers to as “fellowshippers.” The company filed for bankruptcy in January 1992, leaving over $200,000 in unpaid bills. Lawsuits stemming from Nikao’s demise, and Victory In Jesus’ hasty relocation to Hollywood, South Carolina, have fueled much of the local ire against Lund.
David Lund insists that his personal history should have no bearing on the Fenoff sisters’ attempt to run a business.
Of his problems 14 years ago with Nikao Concepts, Lund says simply, “this town destroyed the company. The Attorney General of Vermont went over the case with a fine tooth comb and found nothing wrong.”
“The game is that Dave Lund’s got a bad reputation so let’s hang it on him,” he says. “I’ve never fought back and I don’t believe in retribution.”
What’s really at issue, says Lund, is that “people don’t want to eat when that sound is going on. “
Lund said in an interview that he has no financial stake in Shiloh’s. His name doesn’t appear on corporate documents for the business or for First Trust Construction, the company formed by the Fenoffs to build the restaurant.
“Those girls’ names are on the certificate and they can do whatever they want,” he says. But he does allow that he designed the business for them, has been a mentor throughout.
“I was involved with this restaurant, that’s no secret,” he says. “We designed the soups, set up cooking and training their help. We also provided spiritual counseling.”
If they’re successful, he hopes they will contribute to his work in Haiti, though he says they haven’t yet.
“They’re taught to give to the church. We work with each other because we believe in giving, and they,” he says, referring to Jones and others in Bradford, “try to slander us.”
Behind the legal issues, which are due to be heard in Orange Country Court on November 6 after being postponed from last week, are a series of escalating skirmishes which have made amicable reconciliation all but impossible. The Bradford Merchants Association offered to intervene, but was rebuffed.
Both Shiloh’s and Middle Earth claim the other defaced their common entryway. Lund accuses Jones of deliberately producing an odor “like boiled sneakers” to drive customers away from Shiloh’s. Jones denies it, but says someone from the restaurant put up a sign in the entryway that read “The Stench Comes From the Middle Earth.”
Last April, an electric hammer being operated in Shiloh’s interrupted a performance by Solas and led to an angry confrontation between Jones and Lund. Lund claims there was planned construction, and attributes the dispute to a misunderstanding with the contractor. Jones insists it was a deliberate attempt to disrupt the show.
What everyone seems to agree on is that a hoped-for synergy, akin to “Cheers” and the Hampshire House in Boston, has been irretrievably lost. Early on, Nicole Fenoff considered providing food to Middle Earth patrons, an idea she says Vince and Chris suggested.
“Before the whole situation happened, we would send people down there,” Fenoff adds. “We wanted to promote Bradford.”
Chris Jones is less circumspect. “They really had a chance to be part of something special,” he says, “and they blew it.”