Friday, March 4, 2011

Restaurateurs oppose URA food plan

30 sign letter against vendor lease at visitor center

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum’s Urban Renewal Agency has 1,200 square feet of empty space in the town’s visitor center on Sun Valley Road, and is looking for a food-service business to use the space. To do so will likely take some remodeling. Photo by David N. Seelig

The search for a local restaurateur to lease part of Ketchum's visitor center is coming to a close today, but many of the town's restaurants aren't interested in applying. In fact, 30 have signed a letter to city officials declaring that they're "adamantly opposed" to the idea and asking that the search be discontinued.

Ketchum's Urban Renewal Agency—separate from the city government but led by the same elected officials and two others—owns the visitor center building on Sun Valley Road. For a month, it has been advertising 1,200 square feet of empty space on the center's ground floor to lease to a food-service establishment.

"The restaurant community has, in past meetings with the City Council, let it be known that we are adamantly opposed to the city working to encourage additional food service competition in a struggling market on public space," states the letter signed by Grumpy's, Despo's, Atkinsons' Market & Deli, Whiskey Jacques', The Cellar Pub, Cornerstone Bar & Grill, Cristina's, Globus, il Naso, Ketchum Grill, The Kneadery, Michel's Christiana, Pioneer Saloon, Roosevelt Grill, The Sawtooth Club, Sushi on Second, The Grill at Knob Hill, Java on Fourth, Johnny G's Subshack, Lefty's Bar & Grill, Wiseguy Pizza Pie, Ram Restaurant, Trail Creek Cabin, Rico's Pizza and Pasta, Wrapcity, Moose Girls Café, Perry's, Iconoclast Café, Apple's Bar & Grill, and The Burger Grill.

The history being referenced is last year's debate over allowing temporary food-vendor stands on the adjacent Ketchum Town Square. The City Council had proposed allowing vendors on the square, claiming it would attract more people there. Restaurants showed in force at several meetings to demonstrate their unified opposition, claiming it would harm their businesses. Restaurants have one more complaint this time.

"The chamber is there to promote our businesses," the letter states. "If someone walks into the visitors center for restaurant info, and in the same building there is a food establishment, we see that as a total conflict of interest."

However, the decision is not up to the chamber, said Manager Greg Randolph. The open space doesn't fall under the chamber's lease but is vacant URA property. Nevertheless, Randolph said, the chamber is not opposed to the change.

"We understand their concerns, but we'll all benefit from this," he said, adding that an average of 30 people a day walk into the visitor center.

He said the hope is that having food there would increase foot traffic into the visitor center, enabling the chamber to better direct tourists to their destinations—even restaurants—because the visitor center would not replace restaurants but offer limited food service.

URA board member and City Councilman Larry Helzel said in a phone interview that he's of the same opinion, but realizes it's "hard times for everybody."

"We're not talking about bringing in new competition," he said, adding that the intention has always been to attract an existing local business to relocate to the visitor center building.

Helzel as well as URA Chair and Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall said they'd no longer push for town square food vending if it's done in the visitor center instead.

"Town square vending really turned into a nightmare," Helzel said.

However, Grumpy's owner Pete Prekeges said he sees the two issues as the same.

"We just don't feel a public space should rent to a private company," he said.

Prekeges wrote and sent the letter to the URA on Monday, just in time because the application deadline for food vendors interested in the visitor center is today. He said restaurateurs are slow to speak up because they don't want to risk losing "one single customer."

"We're all running a little bit scared. But, at a point, you're fed up," he said, adding that he'll be at the URA's meeting on Monday at noon in City Hall.

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