When dealers arrived to pick up their checks, they received instead a two-page printed letter (non-negotiable) from Ross Stribling who manages the Antique Mall. The crux of the letter was that Stribling doesn't have the money to pay his dealers and won't have it for the foreseeable future unless he arranges additional financing. The only potential source of that financing suggested by Stribling is a loan from the City of Galesburg.
When Stribling returned to the Galesburg area in the mid-1990s he had purchased the former Odd-Fellows building that now houses the Antique Mall and was looking for investors. The plan called for investors to put up capital to cover not only remodeling expenses of the then dilapidated structure, but also to provide seed money to open the building to an array of dealers who would rent space to display antiques for sale. In addition to the display area, the Antique Mall provided a sales staff who waited on customers and completed sales of the displayed merchandise. Income gleaned from the rent profits was to cover staff salaries, maintenance and utilities on the building, debt service and a mortgage payment to Stribling (who was selling the building to the investment group for a price substantially higher than he paid).
This arrangement seemed like too sweet a deal for Stribling when he first trolled for local investors and we implied as much in the Zephyr at the time. Stribling stayed the course with his financial plan but it is now clear that he was never able to raise the more than onehalf million dollars he initially aimed for locally. In his ''Galesburg Antique Mall Dealer Newsletter,'' Stribling reported that he raised ''only $120,000'' from ''local business leaders.'' This forced him to borrow far more from banks than he anticipated and, unlike ''investors,'' banks expect prompt regular payments be made on their loans.
''Mortgage interest and debt service is a noose around the neck of a new business,'' wrote Stribling in the Dealer Newsletter. ''Like any other new business, the Mall has required time to become profitable. Statistics show that most new businesses take at least five years to reach the point of profitability, but most new businesses fail before they can reach that point. We are now in our fifth year, we have not failed and we have reached the point where our projections for the next year show us in the black for the first time. However, getting through the past four years has been a continuous financial struggle. We have had to cover net losses and debt principal payments totaling $345,349 over that period.''
Stribling told the dealers that he and his wife, Susan, have covered the Antique Mall's financial shortfall up to this point by using their ''life savings, pensions and a second mortgage on our house.'' They reportedly did this ''because we believe in the Mall's future success.'' He claims to be personally responsible for $306,368 at this point. Apparently, whatever liquidity existed with the Antique Mall is now gone. Not only has Stribling not paid his dealers for January sales; he also reported in the Dealer Newsletter that his bank (Wells Fargo) ''has stopped us from issuing any checks until the new financial assistance is obtained. Dealer checks will be late this month.''
The Mall was closed Thursday and a sign posted over the weekend that it would reopen February 12th (Monday). It did not. As of Tuesday afternoon, it was still closed.
In strikingly atypical fashion Stribling himself raised allegations that he and his wife live ''high on the hog'' and rumors ''that I go to the casinos and am a high roller'' in the Dealer Newsletter. ''Nothing could be further from the truth. We live in a house that cost $92,000, we drive two older cars and most of our furnishing are several years old. There is nothing about our lifestyle that is lavish. It is true that I do go to the casinos -- many of you know that because we have seen each other there. I think the insinuation of the rumor is that I am spending your money at the casinos and that is total nonsense. The money risked is my own and there have been many times when winnings have been deposited into bank accounts for the Antique Mall to help us keep going.''
Not surprisingly, this turn of events was not accepted well by the local dealers. A group of 8-10 dealers met with Stribling last Wednesday afternoon in his second floor office. Dealers who were present reported that Stribling said that if the City did not grant the additional loan to the Antique Mall he and his wife would pay the dealers out of their own pockets -- eventually. When he was pressed on this issue by concerned dealers, Stribling allegedly admitted that he could make no absolute guarantee that all the dealers would eventually be repaid.
Another meeting was held Friday evening. At that time, Stribling reportedly told the impatient dealers that he did not ''believe'' he had stolen their money. A plan was tentatively approved to operated in the interim with an escrow account established, controlled by the dealers, into which current sales receipts would be deposited.
A number of dealers have shared their experiences and feeling about this situation; most of whom have requested anonymity. The various reports of events appear to corroborate one another well and even the most frustrated or suspicious of the dealers are loath to say or do anything that might harm the future of the Antique Mall. They are unanimous in their confidence in the sales staff. One thing that seems clear is that as much as many of the dealers wish to see the Antique Mall continue and even flourish, a significant number have lost their faith and trust in Stribling himself.
An exception to the anonymity requests is Dawn Harrison. She has been selling her mother's antique silver at the Mall for the last few years. ''Ross told us that his bank encouraged him to use the dealers' money to pay his bills but I didn't believe him. There are a number of dealers who depend on the income from their sales and he had to have known well before last week that things were going poorly. Why didn't Ross come clean with the dealers sooner? At this point, I don't believe anything Ross says. He tries to say he never did anything wrong but several dealers told me that they are currently out $1-2,000 and Ross himself told us that he owes several months back sales tax. As of Friday night, I would estimate that more than 60 percent of the dealers were pulling out of the Antique Mall.''
Stribling has submitted an application to the City's revolving loan fund for nearly $100,000. Earlier, he received a seven-year loan for $20,000 that Community Development Director Roy Parkin reports was ''current up to two months ago.'' The new loan request is being made to a different City program that is really more oriented toward manufacturing job creation than a retail operation like the Antique Mall. Parkin explained that the conditions of this program are that the City never exceed 25 percent of the project's funding, requires at least ten percent owner equity and the total available is predicated on the number of jobs created or new taxes to be generated.
An informal poll of the City Council doesn't look favorable for Stribling at this point. Not one of the City Council members I spoke to seemed inclined to approve the loan based on the little information currently available to them. And while at least two of the dealers whose livelihood is dependent on continuation of the Antique Mall would welcome the City's help, neither one thought the money should go to Stribling. ''It would be terrible to see this project fail but it might be best for the City to help someone beside Ross make a success of the Antique Mall,'' commented one anonymous dealer.