Longtime Aspen bar owner dies at 79
ASPEN – Leroy Merritt, the owner of Bentley’s at the Wheeler for the past 21 years, died Monday in his hometown of Baltimore.
Merritt bought the popular Aspen bar and restaurant in 1989 from Sirous Saghatoleslami, who opened it in 1984.
Merritt, 79, died due to complications from cancer.
He was a self-made millionaire – he owned the largest commercial real estate company in greater Baltimore – who became a well-known philanthropist in that community.
Merritt also owned a home in Aspen and kept one of the last “old school” neighborhood bars in town alive.
He was a hands-off owner, said Bentley’s General Manager Keith Hatanaka, who worked for Merritt for the past 18 years.
“Leroy was a wonderful, great person to work with,” he said. “All he wanted was for Bentley’s to be a comfortable, locals’ place where anyone can afford to eat, drink and be merry.”
Merritt, once an avid skier, used to hang out at Bentley’s and other longtime establishments that are now gone – Ute City Banque and the Red Onion. His only direction to Hatanaka was to keep Bentley’s true to Aspen locals.
“It was the only restaurant he owned,” Hatanaka said. “He enjoyed it; it was his baby, his hobby, and he loved telling his friends he had a pub in Aspen.
“He loved this atmosphere … what Aspen used to be,” he added. “If he [had] wanted to make this place upscale he would’ve.”
Hatanaka said he assumes that Merritt’s company will maintain ownership of Bentley’s and remain a distant owner.
“I think his legacy will continue,” he said. “His son knew how he felt about this place.”
Merritt Properties LLC, which was founded in 1967, is led by the firm’s president, Scott Dorsey, and its vice president, Robb Merritt, Leroy’s son. Leroy Merritt stepped down from day-to-day management of the company in 1997 but remained chairman.
When he was in town, Merritt would come to Bentley’s with friends and business associates. Years ago, he brought in ex-football players from the Baltimore Colts, Hatanaka said.
One employee remembered a time, a couple of years ago, when Merritt was in the place when it was packed: Merritt waited patiently at the bar for 30 minutes for an open table.
“He was so unassuming,” Hatanaka said. “You couldn’t tell if he had $1.50 in his pocket, let alone a billion.”
He met his wife, Gail, in Aspen. The two dated for years and recently wed.
Merritt’s visits to Aspen became less frequent when he stopped skiing, but he still came out a few times a year, often with his grandchildren.
Hatanaka said he last saw Merritt in November when they had a three-hour meeting.
“He was healthy and sharp as a tack,” Hatanaka said. But Merritt’s health deteriorated rapidly in the past month.
Merritt’s firm was the largest property management company in the Baltimore area, with a portfolio of 13.8 million square feet of managed space, according to the Baltimore Business Journal.
The company expanded in the 1970s to operate Merritt Athletic Clubs, a string of fitness centers in greater Baltimore, according to the business journal.
Merritt’s company ranks fifth among the Baltimore region’s largest corporate philanthropists, having donated $3.8 million to nonprofits in 2008, according to Baltimore Business Journal research.
Hatanaka said Merritt gave generously to local charities in Aspen, as well, and often directed him to contribute to a plethora of causes.
Merritt is survived by his wife Gail Fitzpatrick Merritt; his son Robb; daughter Nancy Merritt Haigley; and five grandchildren.
Hatanaka said a memorial hasn’t been planned locally but anyone who knew Merritt or appreciated the old-style neighborhood bar that is Bentley’s should come in for a toast to one of the last longtime bar owners in Aspen.
“Come in and raise your glass to Leroy,” Hatanaka said.
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