From Beirut to Bulldog Drive: Palm Coast’s Uncivil War Over Gus Ajram’s Property Rights
FlaglerLive | September 29, 2010
At the time of the Black Saturday massacre Gus Ajram was a 16-year-old Greek Orthodox Christian boy working the night shift at the Beirut port, in the early days of the Lebanese civil war. His religion was relevant, at least then. It’s what kept him from taking a bullet to the head when, that winter day in 1976, Christian militias went into a bloodletting frenzy over the killing of one of their own as they took to the streets of the city and executed anyone they identified as a Muslim. Hundreds were killed.
“That Saturday, I’m walking out of the office to go down to the port,” Ajram remembers, “I looked in there, I see this guy taking two guys, bam, bam, shooting them. They were nuts those guys. What’s your name? Mohammed. Bam.”
Mohammed being a Muslim name, all that was necessary to seal a man’s death.
“I see that, I said holy shit.” Eleven of Ajram’s colleagues at the Christian-controlled Beirut port were Muslim. He managed to sneak them into the office, where the building’s landlord told him: “Come on, stick six, seven in the car, as much as Mustafa’s car can take, and run them to the Muslim border,” what was then the demarcation line between east and West Beirut, not far off. “Drop them off and come back. I got the first batch, the second batch, the third batch was Ali,” Ajram recalls. “I’m coming with him down the stairs and looking and they grabbed him. I’m fighting—I’ll never forget his name: George Saliba, big guy—told him, George, that’s my friend, leave him the fuck alone—in Arabic, you know, cussing up a storm. He grabbed him, whipped him. I grabbed Ali, hugged him like this, he put a bullet in back of his head. A piece of his brain hit my head. That’s when I lost it. Honestly, I lost it.”
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The next day Ajram’s father put him on a plane to Kuwait, where his father had worked years before and where Ajram had spent his first five years. That was it for his years in Lebanon. He worked for a freight company in Kuwait City for four years until tanks, checkpoints and soldiers appeared on the capital city’s streets, just as they had in Beirut, as rumors flew that Iraq’s Saddam was about to invade Kuwait. The rumors were a decade too early (Saddam attacked Iran instead). Ajram hadn’t escaped Beirut’s gun-ridden streets to face them again in Kuwait. He left for Queens, N.Y., and filed for political asylum. His application was denied in 1982, when the Lebanese president was telling President Reagan that the war was over, all nationals should be able to come home. It wasn’t, but there was the letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, booting Ajram out.
“I just ignored it, because my wedding to Colleen was the next day,” Ajram said of his wife of 28 years, whom he’d met at a Lebanese friend’s Ossining, N.Y. deli where he used to help out. They married. Raised four children (two boys, two girls, 26, 24, 22 and almost 20), launched several automotive businesses in New York City’s distant northern suburbs, and got rich, not quite in that order. Ajram, a compulsive worker, would put in 18-hour days running his shops and attending school at night. It was no coincidence that in 1987, on the strength of a $180,000 loan, he moved into his biggest shop, at 680 Highland Avenue in Peekskill, N.Y. (at the intersection with Liberty St.) on Christmas Eve. “I didn’t know the difference. Christmas Eve. New Year’s, I was working. I didn’t care,” Ajram says. He was open seven days a week from 5 a.m. to midnight. “After I took this big place, boom, boom, I mean, cash I didn’t know what to do with.”
It wasn’t all plums, of course. He barely saw his children growing up. A year earlier, his mother was killed in a colossal car bomb in the Beirut neighborhood of Sin el Fil. “My father lost it. He turned to the bottle 24/7.” And did so in the Ajrams’ home in new York, where he’d moved in after his wife’s murder. He would die, still drinking, during a visit to Lebanon in 1997, when he slipped on a rock at the beach, cracked his skull in the surf and drowned. By then the Ajrams’ life had changed radically, too. The winter of 1991 was a hell of blizzards. Ajram’s two-truck drivers wouldn’t show. He was pulling 72-hour stints, working the shop, pulling people out of ditches. One night he came home. His wife was breast-feeding Mitchell, their youngest. He’d had enough. “I told her pack up, we’re going to Florida.”
Actually it took more than two years to settle up in new York, but by 1994, they were in Palm Coast, where the rest is not quite, not yet, history.
The distance between Beirut and Bulldog Drive in Palm Coast is 6,410 miles. Gus Ajram hasn’t traveled it or the many places in between in a 50-year journey through violence and hardship—and great fortune—to compromise the life and business he’s built here over 33 feet of real estate. That’s the width of land, his land, that Palm Coast wants condemn along Bulldog Drive. The land is part of two larger properties Ajram has owned since 1996, and that the city wants to buy from Ajram to build a wide, grand entrance to its Town Center development.
The city won’t pay Ajram’s $1.25 million price. It’s offering a third of that, though that’s not the only issue. Ajram’s businesses are. He runs automotive businesses, or leases his properties to people who do. The city doesn’t want that sort of business along Bulldog Drive. It’s not spiffy enough for its idea of a grand entrance. It spent years denying Ajram an occupational license for a dealership there. It’s spent years trying to get him out of there, refusing to move him back a few feet onto land the city owns behind Ajram’s property, to accommodate the widening, or to encroach on the other side of Bulldog Drive, where a concrete rink and a metal-building youth center would not have been difficult to move, either.
It’s not that Ajram is not willing to leave at the right price. But he knows the value of his property, at one of town’s most desirable intersections, and he knows what the city has paid adjoining property owners—four, five and nearly six times appraised market values, while offering him less than twice that of his properties. And he knows what he could make of his property.
Ajram recalls a 2008 meeting with City Manager Jim Landon: “Landon offered me $850,000 plus keeping the property for two years, collect rent. I told him I don’t want to leave. It’s the best location ever, for me. You own the property behind me. Move me back. I don’t mind being behind the pond you want to put in. He said no way. There’s no automotive, he said. Will never be automotive there. I said what’s wrong with automotive, especially the way I run it? So I refused the offer. He takes his finger, put it between my eyes, and said, ‘You’re naïve if you think you can use your property.’”
Rather than meet Ajram’s demand, the city is going the route of eminent domain on that 33-foot sliver instead, the 33 feet it needs for the widening of the road. Downplaying the notoriously high costs, bad publicity and lengthy delays entailed by eminent domain actions—courts are backed up, they’re not likely to move fast—Landon argued to the Palm Coast City Council last week that it was the best way to move ahead with the project.
“When they said they were going to declare eminent domain, I felt like I took a breath for the first time in about nine years, like finally they’ve taken a stance,” Ajram’s wife Colleen says. “I understand that there’s bigger issues to come and more battles ahead, but at least it’s clear where we’re going, instead of the offer we refused and then everything is a stalemate.” Battles have been an integral part of Colleen’s life. This is one more. “One day at a time,” she says. “One issue at a time. You work your way through it. You have to. If you take everything on at once you’ll never see any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Gus’ children are doing everything but their father’s trade. One is a market analyst in Vietnam. Another is a forensic accountant. Another is finishing college, studying business and education to be a principal. The youngest is studying civil engineering. “They hate the business. I’m serious. They see me what I go through,” Ajram says.
“Mitchell doesn’t hate it. He’s thinking about it,” Colleen says.
“They hate it for the hours I put and the fights I put up to correct the image of this business.” These days, after running businesses in Palm Coast and Edgewater (where a 7/11 just signed a long-term lease to fill his property there), Ajram’s GEA Auto Sales is operating on U.S. 1 in Bunnell. “Took me 13 minutes exactly in the county to get the occupational license here,” he says. “Second day I was in business. With the city, nine years. It’s hard.”
To Ajram, Palm Coast never had any intention of dealing with him going back to 2004, when it created the Town Center development as a “community redevelopment agency” and laid out its plans. Ajram’s property was slated for slicing from the start. As he sees it, he never got his occupational license for a dealership because the city would then have had to compensate him that much more in a takings proceeding. That’s the ploy he can’t forgive the city, and why he’s welcoming the eminent domain fight.
He hasn’t lost his taste for the fight. He has lost his taste for what had made Palm Coast attractive to him and his family.
“I lost half of my family,” Ajram says, “lost my property in Lebanon, and the three visits I did there, one for my sister’s wedding, one to bury my father, and one to go there to remove my father’s and mother’s remains from the public cemetery to our cemetery, I felt I don’t belong there. It’s not my place. I don’t even know how to think like that anymore. I cannot even talk the way they talk now, old Beirut language, my language. And here, since I encountered this problem in Palm Coast I feel like I don’t belong here. Where do I go? Which country I go to?”