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Waterfront restaurant left on back burner; 'Unresolved issues' blamed by the city

It had appeared that a restaurant on the waterfront a top priority for the hundreds of callers to Mayor Byron W. Brown's Citizen Hotline -- was on the verge of opening this summer.

A waterfront agency was expected to approve $200,000 in April to pay for the buildout of a restaurant with an outdoor patio at Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park.

A restaurateur with a solid track record showed keen interest, and was preparing to start construction May 1 to meet the July 1 opening day target.

Then the mayor, who said he had been left out of the loop, put the brakes on the project.

Now, a refreshment stand on the wharf, but not the restaurant in the museum, will be opening Friday.

The restaurant? Maybe next year, maybe not at all.

"A restaurant is so needed on the waterfront, and the public is asking for it. What's happened is incomprehensible," said Michael J. Billoni, a Naval Park board member.

Not so, said Peter Savage, deputy corporate counsel, who said the not-for-profit failed to come to the city first, leaving a string of unresolved issues. They include the feasibility of putting a restaurant in the museum, and getting help from the Naval Park, which pays no rent, to cover some of the more than $100,000 the city pays in annual utility costs for the museum.

"Obviously, the mayor supported the concept of a restaurant and the 'lighter, quicker, cheaper' concept, but he also has an obligation to taxpayers to ensure that the venture be done in a responsible way," Savage said.

"We advised it was premature to approve that buildout until we had come to some agreement with the Naval Park on how those issues were to be resolved."

A restaurant was seen by the cash-strapped Naval Park as a key way to generate much-needed revenue.

Col. Pat Cunningham, the executive director, has gone without a paycheck since January. The museum didn't get a $20,000 grant from the county in 2011. Also missing this year was the $50,000 to $75,000 received in recent years from the State Legislature in member initiative grants.

Thomas P. Dee, president of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., made a waterfront restaurant his top priority this summer, and the agency saw the museum as an ideal location.

Hoping to meet public expectation for a restaurant this summer, a request for proposals, known as an RFP, was issued in March by the Naval Park with the assistance of the waterfront agency.

Three vendors responded to the proposal, but only one said it could open the restaurant this summer, by the July 1 deadline. It was a newly formed partnership between Jason Davidson, who owns Waterline Cafe at Waterfront Village Center, catering company Magnolia Events, and is part-owner of Fables in the Central Library; and Michael Shatzel, owner of the Blue Monk, Cole's and Brennan's Bowery Bar & Restaurant.

Davidson said he is "frustrated and disappointed" by the turn of events.

He said he and others put in "hundreds of hours" in preparation to meet the July 1 deadline.

"I had contractors all lined up, construction schedules all ready to go, we had architects working on it, and plans being drawn up by the contractors," Davidson said.

Despite the setback, he said he remains optimistic the restaurant could be greenlighted for next summer.

Donald Alessi, the Naval Park's chairman, said they were aware that before entering into a formal agreement to sublease any portion of the city-owned museum, the Naval Park would have to get the Brown administration's approval. Alessi said it was assumed the mayor was on board with the general concept, since he is an ex-officio, nonvoting member of the harbor agency's board of directors.

However, the issue of spending $200,000 toward building the restaurant was left off the agenda at its April meeting.

Brendan R. Mehaffy, director of the city Office of Strategic Planning, wrote shortly afterward to the Naval Museum. He expressed the city's concerns about needing to be part of the process, and raised potential health and safety concerns about putting a restaurant in the museum.

Cunningham said he subsequently was asked where the museum had advertised for a vendor, and noted it had been in the Amherst Bee, the Challenger and other publications.

"I was asked to send the RFP to Mattie's Restaurant, which we did," Cunningham said. "That was the only one we were asked to go back and send [the RFP] to."

George and Mattie Holt, owners of Mattie's, were out of town Tuesday and unavailable for comment. However, Alessi said Mattie's later responded in a letter that it was not in a position to consider operating a restaurant in the Naval Park.

Savage said mentioning Mattie's was not improper. The mayor, who had not been involved in the RFP process, was simply making sure a variety of restaurateurs had had a chance to respond.

"It's very common to ask about potential vendors, because you want to ensure that the scope of the RFP process is as broad as it can be," Savage said.

Everything pretty much ground to a halt, Cunningham said. At a May 18 meeting, Cunningham said he and Alessi were informed by John Heffron, assistant corporation counsel, that the city intended to keep the restaurant dollars the museum hoped to put back into its operation.

"We were told the city would collect all of the sublease revenues. We would get nothing. Our point was, the whole reason we were giving up about 25 percent of the space was to bring revenue into the park," Cunningham said.

"We told them, in essence, that we would sooner forego any restaurant operation than agree to their proposal. And right now, it's a dead issue."

Savage, while declining to discuss specific negotiations, disagreed with Cunningham and Alessi's interpretation.

"Every offer we have put on the table is based on a net revenue arrangement, so as they are making money, the city is defraying its utility costs."

He said the issue of putting a restaurant in the museum isn't as simple as some make it seem.

"Was the building intended to be a restaurant? Do people want to smell chicken fat? Have there been ventilation studies? Will they serve alcohol, because there are liability issues," Savage said, rattling off concerns.

"The reality is the Naval Park didn't have our approval, and still doesn't have our approval. We support the concept, assuming the issues can be resolved."