Editorial: Suher’s bad practices outweighing the good

  • Pearl Street owned by Eric Suher.

  • Northampton Box Office owned by Eric Suher.

Published: 7/1/2019 10:00:28 PM

Once again, prominent Northampton business owner and downtown landlord Eric Suher is in the news. And once again, it’s not good news.

Only this time, it goes beyond not using a liquor license in a timely fashion, leaving buildings vacant for years, not finishing upgrades to a historic downtown church, and pushing back against downtown initiatives — like the downtown Business Improvement District — that affect his bottom line.

This time, Suher is facing serious allegations of labor law violations from a half-dozen former employees at the Iron Horse Entertainment Group, which includes Iron Horse Music Hall, the Calvin Theatre, Pearl Street Nightclub and The Basement in Northampton, as well as Mountain Park in Holyoke.

On June 18, New England Public Radio published a report in which these former employees allege that Suher broke labor laws relating to working hours, late paychecks, verbal abuse of employees on the job, meal breaks and paid sick leave.

A day later, the state’s attorney general’s office told the Gazette it would investigate the allegations, and encouraged workers who believe their rights have been violated to contact the office’s Fair Labor Division.

We hope this investigation moves swiftly, and that current and former employees participate without fear of repercussions from Suher. Some have said the alleged abuse has been going on for years, but they didn’t file official reports out of fear that doing so would hurt their careers or get them blacklisted from work.

Attorney General Maura Healey has another opportunity to show that her office will fiercely defend the rights of all employees to fair and equitable treatment.

In 2016, the Gazette ran a series of stories that showed how a group of Asian restaurants had apparently flouted the law when it came to paying minimum wage. In an editorial that accompanied those stories, the paper urged state and federal officials to investigate the practices of these restaurants.

We’ll reiterate what we said then and apply it to this string of allegations against IHEG: “Rather than waiting for fearful workers to come forward, they (AG representatives) should travel here and invite workers to meet with them privately so that they can tell their stories ...”

In some cases, the former employees said Suher attempted to fix the errors. He paid them “a little more reliably,” one said. But while he did inform employees of their rights to breaks, he allegedly said they would still need to stay in the office and perform tasks such as answering phone calls, the Gazette and NEPR reported. State law gives employees the option to work or stay in their workplaces during meal breaks.

If the attorney general’s staff finds that the allegations are true, we hope that Healey comes down hard on Suher with fines and other penalties.

Suher hasn’t offered comment on the allegations. That’s his style, however frustrating and disappointing for us.

At least one city councilor notes that the longtime business owner has been the subject of an “inordinate amount” of accusations over the years. “This level of smoke indicates that there might be a fire somewhere,” William Dwight, an at-large city councilor, told the Gazette in the wake of the news reports.

That’s strong talk from a city official against Suher, who no doubt wields power because of his investment in downtown property and the IHEG umbrella.

Over the years, some artists and concertgoers have criticized the condition of IHEG venues, and local chapters of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union alleged unfair labor practices some seven years ago.

Suher has some supporters who say he’s done a lot of good for downtown by drawing thousands of people to big-name shows at his venues. They argue that he has brought good music and culture to the Valley, reviving the Iron Horse in the mid-1990s.

Many of these people haven’t worked for him, however. It’s hard to buy the argument in some quarters that says he’s going to have a target on his back because he’s prominent, or that he brings people and money into the city. A lot of business leaders are prominent and successful, and yet they treat their employees fairly and with respect.

After he brought a successful lawsuit that ended the Business Improvement District in 2014, Suher told the Gazette that he looked forward to working with all downtown stakeholders to figure out ways to maintain a thriving business community.

“We’ll look to try to bring the business community together and look at what can be done about that,” Suher said.

Five years later, the city’s largest property owner has not taken the lead on helping guide any larger initiative beyond running his businesses. In fact, he continues to sit on empty storefronts, including the former Spoleto restaurant on Main Street that has been empty since 2012.

The situation of vacant properties was so concerning to some in the city that Suher enlisted the help of well-known real estate agent Patrick Goggins in an effort to lease out some of his 15 properties that were vacant in 2017.

In Suher’s case, the bad is starting to outweigh the good.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

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