ASPEN " Patrons of Bentley's can rest assured that their local watering hole won't make a final last call, despite that its lease with the city expires next year and the opera house where the bar is located will go through a massive renovation in coming years.
That's the message from Aspen City Council members who last week voiced their support in preserving the local business that's been in the historic Wheeler Opera House since the mid-1980s.
Bentley's future was in question late last month when the council gave the go-ahead to Wheeler Executive Director Gram Slaton to pursue a master plan that involves an estimated $30 million opera house expansion.
In the context of the Wheeler's future, council members were asked what they wanted in the two city-owned spaces, currently occupied by Valley Fine Art and Bentley's.
The elected leaders said they want locally-serving businesses but not necessarily an art gallery, although they have since voiced support for the gallery's owner, Mia Valley. While they agreed an affordable restaurant and bar was desirable, council members didn't specifically argue for Bentley's.
But their silence wasn't indicative of their support for Bentley's.
"I was remiss in not voicing my support for Bentley's," said City Councilman Dwayne Romero. "In the context of our discussions of preserving locally-serving businesses ... it applies to all projects, including our own."
The leases for Bentley's and Valley Fine Art expire in May 2009. A few months prior to that, a process known as a Request For Proposals (RFP) will be open to businesses who can vie to occupy those spaces, said Assistant City Manager Bentley Henderson.
A team of City Hall's top management officials will create a set of criteria that businesses must meet in order to win the bid. A public policy discussion about what kind of businesses the council wants in the Wheeler spaces is expected to occur, and presumably a "locally serving use" will be part of the criteria in the RFPs for both locations, officials said.
"A decision hasn't been made so people ought to chill," said Mayor Mick Ireland last week regarding supporters of Bentley's and Valley Fine Art, who in recent weeks have opined about the possible loss of both businesses.
Other council members said it never occurred to them during the discussion of the Wheeler's future that Bentley's wouldn't be part of the expansion plan.
"I never understood that we were talking about moving Bentley's ...," said City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss. "I have no intention of closing Bentley's, that's not part of my program."
Nor is it for Councilman Jack Johnson, who regularly frequents the pub. And in light of local watering holes like the Red Onion and Ute City Banque closing, as well as the impending closure of Cooper Street as a result of redevelopment, Johnson said preserving Bentley's is essential.
"I never felt I had to stand up and say, 'I'm for Bentley's,'" Johnson said. "I think Bentley's is a great use and we need more bars like that ... Those are the exact uses I have been talking about for the past two years."
The owners of both businesses enjoy reduced rental rates offered by the city.
Valley pays the Wheeler $6,731.21 a month in rent, plus a percentage of trash removal and monthly natural gas bill for the 1,025-square-foot space, according to Slaton.
Bentley's pays a monthly rent of $10,310.36, plus a percentage of trash removal and monthly natural gas bill for 1,825 square feet.
Those rents equate to about $79 per square foot for the gallery and $68 per square foot for the bar and restaurant. Retail space in downtown Aspen on the free market can command as much as $200 per square foot.
Those rents are artificially lowered in order to preserve the types of uses, designed to offer essential services to the public, according to city officials. And the RFP process is designed so that all businesses have the opportunity to make their case as the best possible leaser.
Once the proposals have been answered, city staff will make a recommendation to the City Council, which will ultimately decide what occupies the Wheeler spaces.
"The RFP process tries to ensure the types of tenants that go in there are appropriate ... and we define who we feel is the most desirable," Henderson said. "We try for the most transparent and fair process possible for competition."
According to an April 2004 memo to the council written by Assistant City Manager Randy Ready, Bentley's lease was approved was for five years. At the time, the future of the bar and restaurant was in question but Ready also noted that Bentley's was well suited for the Wheeler.
"The five-year term is expected to coincide with completion of the Wheeler Master Plan and prospective expansion plans that may involve a change in use for this space," Ready wrote in the memo. "... These new lease terms are designed to fulfill the city's proprietary responsibilities to the taxpayers and to the Wheeler fund, while being fair and reasonable with the current local-serving tenant. The current restaurant use complements the Wheeler well."
Regardless of what happens to the long-term viability of Bentley's, the bar and restaurant will shut down sometime this year for a few months for renovation. Replacing the water utilities, soundproofing the space from the rest of the Wheeler building, and replacing the kitchen and bar equipment is estimated to run between $225,000 and $300,000. It hasn't been determined who will bear the cost of that renovation, but it most likely will be shared by the city and the business owner, Henderson said.