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Seichou Karate fighting to survive Old Town North development plans

Seichou Karate Old Town was born in the 2007 Recession and adapted to survive the 2020 Covid pandemic, but after 16 years in the heart of Old Town North, it may not survive the neighborhood’s development boom.

Seichou Karate is one of a dozen stores at the Montgomery Center (807 North Royal Street) in Old Town North. The squat building sits at the heart of a rapidly developing area of the city. Carr Companies purchased the building and announced redevelopment plans last year.

With the building slated for demolition and redevelopment, a handful of local businesses that helped boost Old Town North for decades now find themselves victims of their own success. Beloved local bike shop Wheel Nuts closed in December after 20 years in business. Another shop owner on the block, who asked not to be named, said her shop would be running until they’re forced out. Like others on the block, she said she’s tried to find an alternate spot for her business, but it’s been difficult finding a location she can afford.

Richard Romero has run Seichou Karate since 2007, but has been teaching traditional martial and cultural arts in Old Town since 1997.

The brick walls around the interior of the dojo are holdovers from when that space was an alleyway between buildings. Under the mats, Romero said there are still manhole covers.

“I leased it 17 years ago and there was nothing here,” Romero said. “The bricks inside: that was the exterior of the other buildings.”

Before running the Seichou Karate, Romero was a lawyer, but said he couldn’t really find a place where he felt comfortable. Growing up in New York, he’d trained in karate, and when a coworker asked about martial arts, Romero agreed to teach him. That grew to a small class in the office, and Romero fell in love teaching.

“In 2004, I left law and taught at health clubs,” Romero said. “I was teaching at seven locations.”

Romero said going to work at Seichou Karate has never felt like “going to work.” Romero runs 28 classes per week out of the dojo. Two other trainers at Seichou Karate have been there for 12 years.

The building has gone through significant changes and improvements over the years, including a $22,000 investment in 2021 that Romero said proved to be ill-timed, as shortly after the improvements were completed it was announced that the building would be torn down.

“I get it,” Romero said. “I understand what these developers are up against. On the other hand… I feel confident they could do much more.”

Romero said he was hoping that Carr Companies could appoint a point person to help tenants relocate, but that hasn’t happened. There are doors a representative from Carr can open in the business world that smaller businesses can’t.

“I’ve been looking for 16 months,” Romero said. “If I do manage to call a landlord, many of them don’t want a karate school. There’s a reluctance for martial arts schools because we make noise and can’t afford the rent something like Chipotle can. but if Carr calls, they’ll pick up that phone.”

Other businesses around Montgomery Center told ALXnow that, like Romero, they’ve been searching for buildings to purchase or rent, but the rates are much higher than the Montgomery Center. While commercial real estate has struggled in recent years, Romero said many he’s encountered can still afford to wait for the safer bet of a national chain compared to a local business.

Romero and other businesses in Montgomery Center said they did receive offers to return to the Montgomery Center after the block was redeveloped, but Romero said he can’t afford to wait the several years it might take to build the new development.

For Seichou Karate, Romero said the deadline to find a new place is the end of March.

“We’ll stay here as long as they’ll let us stay,” Romero said. “This [community] isn’t something you can reproduce easily. Our students love us. We’re not a national brand, but around here, we’ve been a gem for the community. We teach something unique and provide holistic development. I’m not ready to hang up my obi just yet.”

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