Last man standing

Apr 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

Dean Aytes is stranded on an island.His home's an old house next to his store, Lafayette Bait and Tackle, and both are now surrounded by sheets of fresh, white concrete, part of the construction of a potential second bridge to Canada. The project has razed every structure in its path. Except for his.

"I am the last one," says Aytes, 53. He finds himself in the middle of a battle between billionaire Matty Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge, and Walter Lubienski, his landlord, who refuses to give up the property.

Moroun wants a privately owned second span next to the existing bridge. He hasn't gotten full permission, but he went ahead and constructed a massive, six-lane entrance ramp anyway. It arcs just outside the little bait shop's front door, high in the air.

To make room for the bridge and the profitable duty-free shops Moroun and his company — the Detroit International Bridge Company — want at its base, century-old side streets and the houses on them were obliterated. The bait store was located on Lafayette and 23rd Street, but that intersection doesn't exist anymore. The shop now has an address only in name, not in geography.

"It's like the robber barons of the Old West," says Lubienski's attorney, Roger Craig. "They just paved over the land in front of the bait shop. Their arrogance knows no bounds."

Moroun initially condemned land that stood in his way and took the properties on it, claiming he was acting as an instrument of a federal project, but the courts have so far ruled he can't do that anymore, even if he compensates the properties' owners. So it appears he has to live with Aytes' rickety old bait shop in the middle of his new plaza.

The company says it has accepted that fact. "As far as we're concerned he can stay, and he has access and signs up so people can find his store," says Dan Stamper, president of Moroun's bridge company. "We created his access and we'll keep the signs up, and we hope he does OK."

That access, though, is less than straightforward. At first, the company left a little road for the bait shop where 23rd Street used to be, but have now switched access to West Grand Boulevard at the corner of Fort Street. The new, narrow road winds between high Cyclone fences on either side, and becomes gravel midway through before delivering traffic to a dead end at his front door. It's confusing. A wrong turn at its entrance sends bait customers across the bridge into Canada, with no way to turn around.

"I had three of them yesterday, they was inside the fence," Aytes says. "They called me on the phone. I just try to tell them how to get out of there. Once you're inside there you're stuck."

This path to his doorstep deters all but his regulars. "I've had three customers all morning. That ain't good. By now I should have had 50. That's how bad he's got me screwed," he says of Moroun.

Aytes was born in Detroit to a family from Tennessee, a heritage reflected in his Southern accent. "I don't think I got a drawl at all," he said in a drawl. He's had construction and trucking jobs now and then, but has worked in bait shops since he was 12, when he'd dig up night crawlers and sell them by the dozen.

He took over this shop 20 years ago, marrying into the family that owned it. He lives in the little house next door with his wife, though now she's staying at their son's house, recovering from a bad fall. As Aytes stood in his shop one afternoon, she called asking if they had enough money for her to go get a haircut. He suggested that she borrow from their son. "Sad you got to borrow money to go get your hair cut," he says.

Times are tough for them. They barely pay their utility bills. The lights are kept off in the house and flicker dimly in the shop. The heat is kept low in both places.

"It's rough," Aytes laments. "I done went through all my savings. Figure I got two light bills, two gas bills, two water bills, plus rent." He blames Moroun and his project for his circumstances. "He broke me, what can I say?"

It doesn't help matters that the project has restricted access to all sorts of favorite fishing spots nearby, riverfront sites that brought droves of anglers here in the old days. "He's even got the damn river now," Aytes says, bitterly. Fewer fishing holes mean fewer customers out this way.

The walls of the store are pretty bare this spring, with fewer items for sale than last year. Aytes places only small orders for fishing supplies now — in case his store is suddenly shut down. "I'm not going to order so much that I'm gonna get stuck with it," he says.

He's got rods and reels, sinkers and lures, and bait like night crawlers and waxworms. It used to stink like fish in here, but demand for bait is so low there aren't any minnows in his large vats, just pipes circulating the empty water so it doesn't stagnate. He once had crawfish, but the old man who caught them and brought them here just died. So no more crawfish.

At this point, Aytes, who owns the business but not the building, is resigned to eventually losing his shop, whether it's taken from him or he's starved out. "They'll get it," he says. But he's holding out for enough compensation to live somewhere else. "He could come in here and buy my business, that's what he could do," he says of Moroun. "You can run it anyway you want; just pay me so I can leave. He won't do that. That's sad."

Stamper says the bridge company is willing to buy the property "if there was a rational way to make a deal and help find him a new location and buy it for rational numbers, but that hasn't been in the cards because of the owner." Stamper says Lubienski offered the property for $20 million. Craig counters, "They've made my client ridiculously low offers, and my client had made ridiculously high offers. The point is we don't have to sell. This is a free society."

In the meantime, Aytes is caught in the middle of the legal feud between his landlord and the billionaire. He spends his days with the TV on in the background to provide the sound of voices so he doesn't go crazy, alone in a cold room. The water trickling the minnow tubs provides steady background noise.

Rashida Tlaib, the state representative for the district where the shop is located, is organizing a "Buy Bait Day" May 16, encouraging people to come out and spend money in the store to keep it afloat.

"This has been a huge challenge for him," says the first-term Democrat. "He's been really depressed. It's such an injustice to put a private owner through all this."

Aytes' only company most days is a cat who jumped out of a truck years ago, just after it crossed the border. Another cat that once belonged to the now-gone trucking company next door started showing up once that building was demolished. So now he feeds her too when she comes around.

Once he leaves here, he's not sure what to do. "Hard for me to get a job," he says. "I done had two heart attacks." He thinks he'll move to Indiana, where he has some family.

Until then, he waits and hopes things will pick up. "It's pretty much just sitting here right now, watching TV until the customers start coming, because they way they got me" — he points to the construction outside the door — " I don't know if they're going to come this year."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]