Michael Lucas paced in the back of Cadillac Catering, the wedding reception and event hall he founded inside an old industrial building at 1935 McGee St.
He held a cellphone to his ear.
“I’m sorry,” he told a client. “In 16 years I never let anyone down, but in this I did let you down. I feel terrible.”
Lucas, 49, was one of the first in 1996 to start a business in a low-traffic area that would become the trendy Crossroads Art District. Over the years, he organized more wedding receptions than he can remember beneath the structure’s tin ceiling and within its bare brick walls, in the Cadillac Room and the Fleetwood Room.
In the end, it wasn’t the slow economy that would defeat him, or even, he said, the rise in competitors chipping away at him from all sides. A half-dozen or so new event spaces have opened nearby in as many years.
“I didn’t mind fighting that battle. I loved what I did,” Lucas said.
In the end, the roof just, literally, caved in: a portion bigger than two Cadillacs joined side-by-side collapsed in early April. Lucas said repairs have been estimated to be upward of $200,000.
According to Ron Baker, a partner in H&L Associates, which owns the building, his insurer has deemed the building uninhabitable and refused to pay any claim for its repair. The market value of the building in 2011, according to Jackson County tax records, was $379,550, down from $475,000 in 2007 before the real estate bust.
The owners have hired structural engineers who say the building is repairable. H&L is trying to negotiate with its insurer over payment and the proper cause of the collapse — whether it is age, faulty original construction, rain or other weather damage. A for-sale sign has been tacked on the building, although Baker said it’s possible that it may simply have to be torn down.
For Lucas, the result is the same:
“I’m going out of business,” he told the client Friday.
In recent weeks, he hastily worked to inform would-be brides and grooms. Reception after reception, some booked more than a year in advance, with some scheduled for only days away, had to be scrapped.
“He’s caught in the middle of it like we are,” Baker said of Lucas. “That’s the real sad thing.”
On Thursday, Lucas called Helen O’Reilly, 28, whose marriage to 29-year-old medical student Joe Losh was booked a year ago. Wedding date: two weeks away, June 2, with 91 guests, almost all coming to Kansas City from out of town.
“I was just hanging out. It was my day off and I was waiting for my nails to dry when he called and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ Kind of like a parent,” said O’Reilly, a master’s degree art student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “He goes, ‘Listen, you know, the roof collapsed. We’re closing. We’re out of business.’ He was just talking and talking. He kept apologizing to me.”
Lucas said he was flabbergasted. O’Reilly, perhaps unexpectedly, felt worse for Lucas than she did for herself.
“I had to stop him and say, ‘Michael, it’s OK,’ ” O’Reilly said. “ ‘This is one day for us. But this is your whole life. Your business. Your family. I understand.’ ”
O’Reilly, of course, was forced to scramble and find a hall and arrange her entire wedding reception, with a new menu, in a matter of days. She called her mother and mother-in-law, Sandy Losh, who had helped plan the wedding.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ ” O’Reilly said. “She was like, ‘Well, we better get on the phone and start Googling.’ ”
To the family’s great relief, new arrangements took less than a day.
The day Lucas called O’Reilly was the same night that her fiancé’s medical school was holding a dinner at the Hotel Phillips, 106 W. 12th St.
It had an opening for June 2 and said it would cater the reception for the same price as the Cadillac Room.
“We looked at it this morning. They had a contract ready for us at 6 p.m.,” O’Reilly said on Friday. “I feel very relieved.”
In some ways, she is fortunate. One outgrowth of the slow economy has been a glut of commercial real estate space and empty buildings that landlords, with no other tenants, have been turning into event and reception halls. The result is more openings for events at hotels and other halls that, with less competition, might normally be booked.
While that assuages Lucas’ guilt to a slight degree, it has not made his regret any less or his calls any easier.
He didn’t reveal how many wedding receptions he had to cancel.
“We were having a good year,” he said.
But now, he said, he plans to borrow from his retirement account to reimburse his clients for their reception down payments, which, for O’Reilly, was about $4,500.
At this point, Lucas said, the option of moving his business and starting over would be too difficult and, given the cost of setting up a kitchen and freezers and sprinkler systems and bathrooms that are accessible to people with disabilities, just too costly.
“I’m beaten,” he said.
On the phone, he continued his conversation with his client who, like O’Reilly, over the course of the conversation seemed less concerned about his own wedding and more concerned about Lucas’ future.
“What am I going do?” he said, answering his client’s question. “I don’t know. I guess I’m going to fade off into the night, start looking for a jobor my next thing.”
Phone call finished, Lucas turned.
“It’s breaking my heart to tell them,” he said. “I want to be the guy who does the right thing.”
“Some of them have been so understanding. A few even invited me to their weddings.”