Judgment day looms for Aspen eatery Justice Snow’s | AspenTimes.com

Judgment day looms for Aspen eatery Justice Snow’s

The Aspen City Council told Justice Snow's co-owner Michele Kiley to remove lighted signs reading "veto" from the restaurant's windows earlier this week.

With the end of the business day Monday looming for Aspen restaurant Justice Snow's to relieve its $40,574 rent debt to the city, owner Michele Kiley said she plans to "beg, borrow or steal to move the process along."

"I'm literally cobbling together every penny that's available to make this happen," Kiley said Thursday. "Hopefully after satisfaction (of the debt), the city will renew the lease."

If Kiley can't muster up the money to catch up on rent, the City Council has said it won't renew her lease for the 2,618 square feet of space in the city-owned Wheeler Opera House.

If she does, the council still might not renew it, based on comments from Councilmen Adam Frisch and Bert Myrin at Monday's meeting. Both elected officials expressed frustration then with Justice Snow's and its inability to stay current on its rent and its plea to close longer during the offseason than its lease terms allow.

"Just paying rent doesn't necessarily end the discussion," City Attorney Jim True said Thursday. "It depends on what (Kiley) is proposing."

Kiley said she has backed off her previous mission to renegotiate terms of the lease, which originally was for five years and has been month to month since earlier this year. Justice Snow's opened in January 2012.

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An investor group has been lined up to pay off the rent, Kiley said, but it hasn't committed because of the uncertainty of the lease. In other words, even with the rent satisfied, Justice Snow's might not reopen.

"They don't want to throw good money after bad," she said.

The City Council also has asked Kiley to demonstrate how she plans to boost business through a menu overhaul and fresh business model.

The matter could go to City Council at its meeting scheduled for Monday, either in public or in executive session, which is closed to the public. The City Council would make its formal vote on the lease status in public, possibly Monday or Tuesday.

"There are a whole bunch of scenarios," True said, "so we just have to play it by ear."

Kiley admitted she didn't win any fans in the Aspen government Monday night by placing four brightly lit letters in the sills of the restaurant's windows facing Mill Street. The letters formed the word "veto." The city had her remove the letters this week because they violated municipal code.

"I have the most to lose here," Kiley said. "I was just trying to inject a little bit of humor."

Should the City Council not renew or extend the lease for Justice Snow's, a request for proposals process would ensue, with a new restaurant opening at the corner space by June, based on the sentiment of elected officials at Monday's meeting.

In the meantime, the city would also field applications for a pop-up business for the winter season. Council members have made clear they don't want the space empty during ski season.

If the lease for Justice Snow's is not extended or renewed, Kiley would be eligible to apply for pop-up status or submit an RFP, but only if she pays off her rent.

Kiley has argued that Justice Snow's has served the community well through its free events such as Poetry Nights and its Americana music series. She also said more than $650,000 was put into remodeling the space where the previous tenant was Bentley's, which served pub-grub fare and catered to the beer-and-shot crowd.

Justice Snow's raised the quality of the food offerings and emphasized craft cocktails, yet Kiley has conceded its service was not up to snuff, a repellent for some customers who normally might have patronized the restaurant and bar.

Justice Snow's base rent to the city is $9,817.50 a month, or 8 percent of its gross sales that surpass that year's "breakpoint," a term that refers to the base rent divided by 0.08.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein has asked city staff to research what the space's rent would be were it on the free market. Kiley has argued that any subsidy she has received has been offset by capital improvements and the free offerings Justice Snow's has provided to the community over the years.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

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