FREEPORT — The first hint of the simmering quarrel behind the scenes at Freeport Village Station is the website, www.onefreeportvillagestation.com.
The home page indicates that the so-called “state-of-art” $30 million retail project by L.L. Bean and Boston-based Berenson Associates is developing according to plan. And by all accounts, it is.
But until recently, the gratuitous web address was a mystery. Why did the developers use onefreeportvillagestation.com?
Because Kelley Habib John, a Boston-based creative firm hired in 2007 by Berenson to develop a name and brand for the project, owns www.freeportvillagestation.com. It also owns close to two dozen other Web domains related to Village Station, and has no plans to relinquish them.
In fact, KHJ is using the sites as leverage in a dispute with Berenson, which it claims used “Freeport Village Station” without paying for it.
At first, the separation between KHJ and Berenson was amicable. Three years later, the goodwill between the two firms is gone.
The company’s chairman, Greg John, claims Berenson still owes his firm $28,000 for work it performed on Village Station. Further, he said, “Freeport Village Station” is a name KHJ helped develop before Berenson claimed it as its own.
He’s considering seeking a court injunction to prevent Berenson and L.L. Bean from using the name.
“This isn’t a payment dispute,” John said. “This is a dispute over non-payment. We did fair, honest work for the naming of the property. The name is the beginning of the branding.”
For nearly three years KHJ’s dispute with Berenson has been handled by attorneys behind the scenes. Now the argument is at a crossroads. Although both companies are supposed to meet for arbitration hearings, the two sides are digging in, escalating the rhetoric.
Meanwhile, officials from L.L. Bean have remained silent, and it’s unclear if the retail giant was even aware of the dispute until a reporter’s inquiry this week. The company did not return phone or e-mail requests for comment.
John believes the company will try to keep its distance and “spin this like it’s just a business dispute between two big Boston companies.” But in comments this week, John appeared intent to bring L.L. Bean into the fray.
“I’m assuming (L.L. Bean) has to know,” John said. “That’s what so troubling about this. L.L. Bean has a reputation for being very conscientious and forthright.”
John Brazilian, of the Boston law firm Butters Brazilian, which represents Berenson, doesn’t dispute that KHJ is owed payment. However, Brazilian claims the amount is about a third of the $28,000 KHJ is seeking.
Additionally, Brazilian said, Berenson owns the rights to freeportvillagestation.com.
“I think it’s ours,” Brazilian said.
Brazilian said KHJ is owed about a $10,200. He said the payment was delayed after “dropping through the cracks.”
“It’s not like Berenson doesn’t have the money,” Brazilian said. “The bill probably got handed to a bookkeeper and it was lost. There’s no excuse for that, and we’ve already told them that we’re prepared to pay the ($10,200). But at some point these guys got piggy and figured they’d go for the $28,000. … They know they’re not entitled to the rest of the contract.”
John, who provided copies of the work contract and e-mails between himself and officials at Berenson, disagreed. He said the only reason his firm agreed to the $10,200 was because Berenson promised KHJ would be used to help market the groundbreaking and store openings at Village Station.
Berenson, John said, had also indicated that it had chosen a name internally, not from KHJ’s list. Later, John said, KHJ found out Berenson picked Freeport Village Station – one of KHJ’s suggestions.
After that, he said, Berenson never paid KHJ despite more than two years of persistent inquiries.
“All of a sudden they stopped returning phone calls and e-mails,” John said.
“We’re a small company,” he added. “For Berenson, $28,000 isn’t a lot to them. But it’s a lot to us.”
Brazilian scoffed at John’s threat of an injunction, saying the two sides are contractually obligated to go through arbitration first. He also threatened to sue “whoever” posted a message on freeportvillagestation.com discouraging shoppers from traveling to Freeport.
“Why go to Freeport?,” the website said. “You’ll save time and money by shopping the GREAT outlet stores in Kittery, ME and Portsmouth, NH. There’s almost triple the amount of stores than in Freeport, plus dozens of restaurants of all types to choose from! Spend your time shopping, not driving, and see what Kittery and Portsmouth have to offer.”
The message was posted last September. It was taken down after Berenson’s attorneys contacted KHJ.
Brazilian was careful not to accuse John’s firm of posting the message.
“Whoever put that up there, we’re going to pursue them legally,” Brazilian said. “I certainly hope (John) didn’t do it. He appears to have a reputable firm. … I can’t imagine someone purposefully trying to divert business from a former client.”
When asked about the message, John said it was posted for a very brief period of time.
“(It) highlighted other outlet locations in the area,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We voluntarily took the site down at the request of the developer, in hopes of fostering a resolution.”
But such a resolution seems a distant possibility.
Berenson has laid claim to the web domains, a claim John called “laughable.”
“In a desperate attempt to take focus off of their non payment, Berenson is trying to make the (the web domains) an issue,” said John, adding that the 2007 contract made no mention of domain procurement.
“We own the (web domains), and they are not for sale, ” he added.
As far as John is concerned, the name “Freeport Village Station” is also KHJ property.
“If they actually came up with the name, don’t you think they’d get the (web domains) as well?” he said. “It just proves they’re not acting in good faith.”
“It’s ludicrous that this guy thinks he’s going to get an injunction (on the name),” he said.
It’s unclear how the two sides will proceed. But the fracas is a blemish for a project that’s received mostly positive publicity from local and national media.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Shoppers teem at Freeport Village Station. A dispute is simmering over the naming rights of the the $30 million outdoor mall, a joint project between L.L. Bean and Boston-based Berenson Associates Inc.