Columbia Falls Community Market to Operate Amid Lawsuit

The market will return to O’Brien’s Liquor and Wine on June 8. Organizers filed a lawsuit against the property owner, alleging a breach of contract.

By Maggie Dresser
Columbia Falls Community Market on July 2, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The Columbia Falls Community Market (CFCM) on Thursday, June 8, will return to its longtime location at O’Brien’s Liquor and Wine following a hiatus last week amid a lawsuit with the property owner.

After the May 25 community market, a dispute between 830 First Ave. W. property owner O’Brien Byrd and market organizers over a lease agreement forced the abrupt cancellation of the weekly event at O’Brien’s Liquor, where it has been operating for the past eight years.

Following the disagreement, market organizers filed a civil lawsuit accusing Byrd and his real estate entities of breaching their contract. The plaintiff’s attorney, Clifton Hayden, filed an application for a preliminary injunction and a motion for a temporary restraining order to allow the market to proceed until the next court date on June 19.

Judge Robert B. Allison on June 2 granted the motion, allowing the CFCM to continue operating until the hearing.

“As far as the injunction, even though we think we will ultimately prevail, we will certainly comply with all court orders,” O’Brien told the Beacon.

While CFCM Executive Director Melissa Ellis said she could not comment on the lawsuit, she told the Beacon the market would be back at O’Brien’s Liquor on June 8 with live music from John Dunnigan. The front and back of the liquor store will host the event, but the Coop building will be closed. Organizers are working with the city of Columbia Falls to secure a permit at an alternative location for future markets.

“We will be at the liquor store this week,” Ellis said. “We would absolutely appreciate people coming out and supporting our vendors, our nonprofits, our sponsor and our partner and we really encourage donations to the Columbia Falls Community Market.”

According to Judge Allison’s order, the defendants are “temporarily restrained from interfering with the operations of the Columbia Falls Community Market,” citing the amendments to temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions that passed in the 2023 Legislative Session with Senate Bill 191.

The new laws allow temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions to be granted by the court if the applicant is likely to succeed on merits; the applicant is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief; the balance of the equities tip in the applicant’s favor; and if the order is in the public interest.

Judge Allison stated in his order that the plaintiff will “likely” prevail on its claims for breach of contract and the defendant’s modification of the leasehold could result in the market’s loss of vendors, sponsors and the event itself.

Additionally, Judge Allison stated that having the market operational is in the public’s interest.

According to court documents, the CFCM has been operating on Thursdays during the summer at O’Brien’s Liquor and Wine since 2015 through a lease agreement with Byrd and his real estate entities.

In March 2022, organizers with the CFCM renewed its lease to operate the market at the Coop building and the parking and vendor spaces associated with the properties for the next five years. The lease also contains a term giving the plaintiff an exclusive right to renew the lease for five more years, according to court documents.

The lease was renewed with North Fork Intuition LLC as the landlord instead of Three Byrds Properties, LLC, at the request of Byrd who owns membership interests in both companies.

In April 2023, North Fork Intuition presented CFCM with a “proposed amended and restated lease,” adding Three Byrds Properties as a party landlord and altering the legal description of the lease premises to exclude the Coop and attached paved parking, records state.

A year later, the owner leased the property to a third party – Johnny Shockey of production company Outriders Present.

The market operated on May 18, 2023 for the first event of the season with reduced space and without alcoholic beverages. At the following market on May 25, organizers secured a permit issued by the City of Columbia Falls to allow them to work with a caterer to provide beverages at the market.

The next day, O’Brien sent CFCM a “notice of default and cancellation and notice of rescission,” which barred organizers from conducting the market.

“I discovered (June 1) that the Market has sued me personally and my businesses,” Byrd said in a statement. “The Market never had the exclusive right to use the Coop on market nights. Market leadership also refused to work with the vendor in the Coop who operates the liquor license. Besides failing to timely make rent payments required by the lease, Market leadership took actions that, if allowed to continue, would violate and potentially compromise the liquor licenses operating at our place of business. Some of the statements made by Market leadership on social media were also inaccurate or incomplete, and, I believe, were intended to damage me and my businesses.”

CFCM applied to relocate the market, but local and state agencies informed them of delays that would take weeks.

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