Stonewall Orlando closes its doors as it searches for new owner

Stonewall hosts Come Out With Pride’s Block Party in 2018. (Photo by Jeremy Williams)

This story has been updated to include comment from Maria Pradera and Dori Batis.

ORLANDO | Stonewall Bar posted to its Facebook page Dec. 31 a notice that read “due to unforeseen circumstances Stonewall Bar is temporarily closed.” (The post has since been taken down but the bar remains closed.)

Steven Watkins, who owns Stonewall Orlando but has been away from the day-to-day operations of the business for nearly three years now, says the shutdown happened because the bar’s current operators did not come up with the money to purchase Stonewall by Dec. 29 as agreed upon.

“It’s no secret that I have been trying to sell for some time now,” Watkins says. “The current operators were in the process of buying the business but missed the deadline and then I found out they haven’t been paying their people. That was the biggest reason that I had to go in and shut it down. It was bleeding money and I had to stop the bleeding; it was just ridiculous.”

According to Watkins, the new operators had taken full financial responsibility but did not come up with the money they were supposed to pay to him. Watkins only identified Maria Pradera as one of the parties who were financially responsible. In an interview with Watermark, Pradera, who denies she was financially responsible at any point, identified the other individual involved as Dori Batis.

“Maria I believe told everybody that she had bought the building and everything but it wasn’t closed on,” Watkins says. “She was running up bills on my end that I didn’t even know about until a couple of weeks after she had done it.”

Pradera disputes that claim, stating that when she was brought onboard by Batis to manage Stonewall she was not given access to any of the business’ banking information to be able to pay employees and that much of what she spent was out of her own pocket.

“I cannot run a successful business without having access to Stonewall’s bank account, to have checks to be able to provide for our people,” Pradera says. “I was there 10, 12 hours a day, up there every single day for the past eight weeks.”

Watkins stated that financial responsibility was taken over on Dec. 13 with the understanding that the new ownership would close to get ready to reopen in time for New Year’s Eve.

“They were supposed to have everything done by the 29th of December so they could open on New Year’s Eve but instead they kept it open when they were supposed to have it closed down and were running it upside down. There weren’t supposed to be any payments going out, they were just supposed to be getting ready,” he says.

Pradera disputes that claim as well saying Watkins knew she was planning to stay open during the weeks in December leading up to New Year’s. Batis later stated that Stonewall was supposed to close down from Dec. 13-18 at a minimum but that Pradera got pushback from the employees because an event had already been scheduled in the week.

Batis says she contracted COVID so was not at Stonewall during that period but thought that they were going to be closed.

Watkins says that Stonewall was closed two days before he went in and shut the business down.

“People were reaching out to me saying the place looked worse than they had ever seen and that they had not been paying the employees. So I shut it down and told them unless they come up with the money and pay the people what you owe them then I’m keeping it shut down,” Watkins says.

“That place is immaculate,” Pradera argues. “From top to bottom. I had people there on their own time because of what was going to happen on New Year’s. I had glitter floors put in. The bathrooms were done. We did pressure washing, we painted, the windows, the crane, the pool was going to get fixed. Like we had everything set up.”

Pradera says she got a call from Batis at 9 a.m. the morning the bar was closed telling her Watkins was pulling out of the deal and would find someone else to buy it.

“Dori told me it was because she didn’t sign the paperwork on time,” Pradera says. “But now I’m being blamed because I’m the face of it and I’m there every day.”

Pradera added she has not spoken with Batis since that morning phone call. She also says that the closing of Stonewall came as a surprise to most of the employees as well.

“Unless some of the older ones who we’re in cahoots with Steven knew about it, because Steven might have said something to other people, I don’t know. But none of us knew. I didn’t know, I had no clue,” she says. “All I wanted was for the community to have a safe place to go. Where every day they knew that it was going to be fun for them. I built that rapport with them. They’ll tell you I was there every single day, 10-12 hours a day. I know their names. I know their faces. I know where they came from. I know what they went through.”

Watkins says that he has started paying staff and some of the entertainers the money owed out of his own pocket.

“I’m trying to make it right the best I can,” he says.

Watkins, who resides in South Florida, says he is unable to run and operate the business from where he is so Stonewall’s doors will remain closed until he is able to find new owners, adding that whoever it is he would prefer to see it kept it in the community.

“The community is what paid for Stonewall, they built it,” Watkins says. “When I was there I put everything back into it to make it better. Now I live in Fort Lauderdale and I can’t keep doing it. I can’t be there and work it and make it what it should be.”

Batis: Stonewall was mismanaged

Batis, who has a background in real estate, says she was initially brought in by Watkins to assess Stonewall and help him sell it.

“Steven has been semi-retired for a while and let’s just say when I came in you can see it was being mismanaged,” she says. “From what I had heard he had attempted to sell the bar to different managers and bartenders. He wanted to keep it open for the community. While I was doing my assessment, my whole thing was I wanted to save it for the community too.”

Batis says Watkins went on vacation while she assessed the bar and when he came back she says he made her an offer saying she should buy Stonewall.

“I used to own a bar,” Batis says, “but I was hesitant because I’m a single mom and didn’t want to be in a bar at all hours of the night. Maria was there and offered to manage it and said I would never have to step behind the bar. She is Darden trained and I know she is capable.”

Batis says Watkins set it up so that she could come in and get a feel for the place to see if she wanted to move forward with the purchase. “We were using his dollar to get a feel for the bar and see if we wanted to do it,” she says. “It was always a sale being worked on. Even when rumors would fly around I would correct people, Steven is the owner, we are just interim managers because the manager that was there quit. Nothing has been signed.”

Batis did not want to go into detail on the record about several issues as they are still being worked out but says she thinks the biggest issue was it wasn’t being managed properly.

“We were trying to avoid the bar closing the way it did,” she says. “There were a lot of things done improperly but I think it was because the previous manager was overwhelmed.”

Batis confirmed that financial responsibility turned over on Dec. 13, not specifying if that included Pradera, and said that they had until Dec. 29 to sign the paperwork.

“I got the text message from Steven that morning letting me know that Maria and I were no longer allowed on premise and the doors would be closed. I immediately called Maria to read her the message,” Batis says.

Batis confirmed she has not spoken with Pradera since that call.

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