Aspen’s Wheeler restaurant space down to two finalists |

Aspen’s Wheeler restaurant space down to two finalists

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart/The Aspen TimesPatrons depart Bentley's at the Wheeler Tuesday evening while, a few blocks away, the Aspen City Council debated which new restaurant should occupy the space in the historic opera house.

ASPEN – The suspense over who will occupy the city-owned Wheeler Opera House restaurant space reached a new level Tuesday evening as the Aspen City Council debated the issue for 90 minutes and narrowed its list of four semifinalists down to two, then decided more time was needed to make a final decision.

No official votes were recorded during the council’s Tuesday work session. Based on the discussions, the two apparent finalists for the lease currently held by Bentley’s are CP Restaurant Group, represented by Craig Cordts-Pearce, and Fiercely Local, represented by Michele Kiley and Marco Cingolani. CP Restaurant Group operates Brexi, CP Burger, LuLu Wilson and The Wild Fig. Fiercely Local’s Kiley and Cingolani operate Specialty Foods of Aspen/The Cheese Shop.

Councilman Steve Skadron offered praise for all four finalists but said he would side with Fiercely Local. Councilman Derek Johnson indicated a preference for CP Restaurant Group. But Mayor Mick Ireland and Councilman Torre said they needed additional information from the two finalists. A decision may be forthcoming at Monday’s regular council meeting.

Early in the meeting, Torre voiced support for Billy Rieger, owner of Kenichi and the recently closed Bad Billy’s restaurants, but did not have enough support from the others to push his choice forward. Ireland didn’t specify, saying he could go with either Fiercely Local or CP Restaurant Group if it were clear that one of those groups could secure two more votes.

Three votes are required for the council to enter into a lease agreement with a restaurateur. Interim Councilwoman Ruth Kruger, who is completing the vacated term of Dwayne Romero, has recused herself from the process due to a professional conflict of interest.

The intensity was obvious near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, with both finalists – Cordts-Pearce and Kiley – calling for a decision, expressing a desire to end the drama and anxiety surrounding the selection.

“This is not a small business up here,” Johnson said, referring to the slow pace of government decisions. “This is the slowest-moving thing you’ve ever seen. If we were headed for a wall, we couldn’t turn it.

“We need some time to let this marinate … and let some politics and time go by and let us come back Monday and we’ll have a decision,” Johnson added.

But time is a factor, with the city planning to renovate the city-owned restaurant space, the basement beneath it, plumbing and electrical systems, and the kitchen this summer. Officials with the city’s capital assets department stressed urgency and said a decision must be made soon so that a contract and designs can be completed before the renovation begins in July, giving the new restaurant a chance to open before the winter tourist season kicks into gear in December. Some of the renovation plans will revolve around new restaurant configurations.

The three councilmen and Ireland said they want additional information from each applicant on price points, plans for longevity and what they can provide in the way of tenant improvements. An e-mail with requests for specific information is expected to be sent to the finalists Wednesday.

The city is asking for a fixed minimum monthly rent plus 8 percent of gross sales in exchange for a five-year lease with an option for another five years. Considering the prime location at the corner of North Mill Street and East Hyman Avenue, the rent terms are considered generous by Aspen standards, meant to give the operation stability and keep prices affordable for local consumers and tourists on a budget.

The concepts for the space are as different as the groups themselves. Cordts-Pearce, with four popular local restaurants and a large team of employees already in place, is considered by some to be the most stable option. But Kiley and Cingolani, in the words of Skadron, give the city an opportunity to “cultivate a homegrown business,” turning the Wheeler space into a small-business incubator of sorts.

Cordts-Pearce, in his presentation to the council on March 15, said he wants to create a “gastro pub,” a British term for an eatery and bar that offers quality food and drinks at affordable prices. He stressed the local historical atmosphere of his restaurant concept, and described how patrons will visit and know that they are in Aspen, not an imitation of an eatery in San Francisco or New York City.

“It’s not a bistro, and not a burger joint,” he said Tuesday.

At that same meeting on March 15, Kiley and Cingolani spoke of having a lunch-and-dinner restaurant and an adjacent morning-to-night cafe, with the two operations complementing each other and sharing resources. She has requested a longer lease term than the five years that the city is suggesting, saying the company has to answer “to the concerns of our investors.”

Like Cordts-Pearce, though, she said she is willing to bend to the desires of the council – even nixing the cafe idea, if need be – if terms can be worked out suitably.

Ireland has pointed out that he’s not concerned about either restaurant’s return on investment, but rather the needs of the community and the stability of the operation. He said the Cordts-Pearce and Fiercely Local concepts are markedly different, “like yin and yang,” and he’s torn between the two.

In previous memorandums, the city has asked applicants to address the following additional conditions:

• Maintaining a separate retail storefront of about 500 square feet.

• Exploring ways to present small-scale entertainment options within the restaurant from time to time, primarily in support of Wheeler programs.

• Providing an affordable lunch/bar menu all day as an option for evening diners who would rather not order from the dinner menu.

Bentley’s, which has occupied the Wheeler space since 1984, submitted a lease proposal but did not make the cut from nine applicants to four finalists last week. Whoever wins the lease will also utilize the space next door in the area fronting North Mill Street, currently occupied by Valley Fine Art.

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