Justice Snow’s owes more than $40,000 in rent to city of Aspen
The city of Aspen plans to step up efforts to collect more than $40,000 it is due in rent from the Justice Snow’s restaurant, an official said Tuesday.
“The city is in the process of making (a) formal demand regarding this delinquency,” Assistant City Manager Sara Ott said in an email to The Aspen Times.
Justice Snow’s leases 2,618 square feet of space in the city-owned Wheeler Opera House. The restaurant opened in January 2012 after signing a deal with the city the previous December. It won the lease, which includes below-market rent, after the City Council selected it over a handful of other restaurant operators who vied for the space after the closure of Bentley’s at the Wheeler.
Members of City Council, in a closed-door discussion after Monday’s regular meeting, discussed the status of Justice Snow’s after a Sept. 28-dated letter to the city from the restaurant’s attorney seeking leniency with its lease.
The letter did not refer to the amount Justice Snow’s owes, which stood at $40,574.49 as of Tuesday. That amount includes $18,926.45, which has been past due for more than 90 days, according to a billing statement from the city.
Talks continued Tuesday when Justice Snow’s co-owner Michele Kiley and Anne Marie McPhee, the tavern’s attorney, met with city officials about the future of the business.
McPhee and Kiley declined to reveal details of the discussion, but Kiley said the city is using “standard business practice” to work things out.
“It’s just the court of public opinion where we are being tried and executed,” Kiley said of recent social-media comments she has seen about the problems of Justice Snow’s.
Still, Kiley said she is uncertain if Justice Snow’s, which is open this week until at least Sunday, will remain in business this winter.
“I’ve got to be honest, there’s very little I can say until the process resolves with council,” she said. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance that we’re finding ourselves in after so much dedication and community involvement for so many years. Justice Snow’s has a long track record of community building, and at some point that probably has to be factored in.”
The restaurant’s issues were raised during the public comment portion of Monday’s City Council meeting, as well.
Realtor Bryan Semel, who said he has experience in restaurant management in Las Vegas, offered sharp criticism of Justice’s woes.
“Everyone deserves a chance, but unfortunately this did not work,” he told the council. “(The city) can’t keep giving but not getting. I just think somebody with a different plan or with a lot more experience would be better suited to maximize the Aspen dollar.”
Under the terms of its lease with the city, monthly rent is $9,817.50, which equates to $117,810 a year. The base rent has increased each year based on Justice Snow’s paying a percentage of its gross sales to the city. The lease also requires Justice Snow’s to pay the $117,810 annually along with 8 percent of its gross sales that surpass that year’s “breakpoint,” a term that refers to the base rent divided by 0.08. McPhee’s letter to the city asked that amount to be reduced to 6 percent.
The letter also asked for the city’s permission to close for 60 days, starting Oct. 1, to allow Justice Snow’s time to revamp its menu, business plan and operations. The lease stipulates that the restaurant can close for two weeks in both the spring and fall offseasons. Justice Snow’s stayed open, however, because the letter gave the city little time to put the matter before the City Council until Monday’s executive session.
Before the private meeting, Councilman Bert Myrin stated publicly that “one of my top goals is to keep the lights on in locally serving restaurants and bars, whether that’s the existing operator or finding a new pop-up for the season. Something needs to happen so we have those lights on and the restaurant and bar operating as soon as possible, and we’ll discuss the mechanics in executive session, but that’s my underlying goal.”
Councilman Adam Frisch suggested the letter seeking leniency put the council in a bit of a pinch.
“I was not too thrilled to read about a two-day notice request to be closed for 60 days,” he said, adding that he, like Myrin, would prefer there is community conversation about Justice Snow’s and its future. The city responded, and on Tuesday added an item about Wheeler leases to its upcoming Monday work session.
Kiley, meanwhile, said she is ready to “double down and change our business model and offer great value and great service.”
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Many members of the community wrote to laud the former Skico executive and city councilman for his friendship, dedication to family and community-minded spirit over more than two decades in Aspen.