Bentley’s future on the rocks? |

Bentley’s future on the rocks?

ASPEN ” The owners of an Aspen bar and an art gallery are anxiously awaiting a decision by city officials on whether they will be allowed to remain in their current locations.

The leases at Bentley’s and Valley Fine Art, located in the Wheeler Opera House, expire in May 2009 and city officials aren’t convinced they should stay.

During a discussion about a possible future expansion of the Wheeler Opera House, Aspen City Council members on Tuesday said they would prefer to have a more “vital” use in the city-owned building than an art gallery.

And while council members indicated they want an affordable bar and restaurant attached to the Wheeler, elected leaders weren’t specific in their interest of keeping Bentley’s, except Councilman Steve Skadron, who said he couldn’t comprehend losing the 25-year-old bar and restaurant.

The comments came after Wheeler executive director Gram Slaton asked City Council members what they would like to see in those commercial spaces in the context of the opera house expansion and the future of the Wheeler.

“I didn’t hear anyone [from City Council] come to Bentley’s defense except Steve Skadron,” Slaton said Wednesday, adding he interpreted the comments to mean that they wanted a pre-show and post-performance venue but with no specificity.

Slaton suggested Bentley’s might not be the “patron-friendly” venue that Wheeler visitors want.

“Bentley’s, for better or worse, is a rowdy bar,” he said.

More unexpected was hearing ” from the current council’s viewpoint ” that an art gallery might not fit the bill for the Wheeler any longer.

“It was a surprise to me and I’m sure it was a surprise to [the owner],” Slaton said.

It certainly was news to Valley Fine Art owner Mia Valley, who has operated at 213 N. Mill St. for the past two years. She said past conversations with Slaton have centered around a possible expansion of her gallery when the Wheeler is remodeled.

Valley, who has lived here for 36 years and previously operated her gallery on the Hyman Avenue mall, said she gets more traffic now from local residents in the Wheeler space than she ever has.

She defended her territory by saying that the gallery sells a range of inexpensive to expensive artwork, which is reflective of Colorado’s landscape and Aspen’s history.

Valley said she plans to make the council aware of her contributions to the community and will plead her case before any decisions are made on her lease.

“I’m sure we are all on the same side,” she said.

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, which is owned by a St. Louis businessman, pays 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.

In the coming months, city officials will decide if they want the same use as Bentley’s or something else. Either way, the negotiations and decision-making will have to be handled gingerly, Slaton said.

Keith Hatanaka, the manager of Bentley’s, said he has met with Slaton three or four times in the past six months to discuss the lease and renovation plans, which will require the bar to close for three to six months next year.

At the last meeting in December, Slaton told Hatanaka that he needed direction from the City Council before proceeding with renewal options, Hatanaka said.

But it remains unclear what the future will hold for Valley Fine Art, or Bentley’s, which has been operating there since the mid 1980s.

“I’m not sure how it will play out from here,” Slaton said. “I’m filtering through what I heard [Tuesday] night and have to make some sense of it.”

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