Town takes first step in helping restaurant owners

Wants to focus on mom and pop operations

By Mark Reaman

It will come as a surprise to no one in the North Valley that the number of restaurants operating in Crested Butte has declined in the last couple of years. Before COVID, the restaurant vacancy rate in town was just 5% with two of 39 possible restaurants closed. Heading into the summer of 2023, restaurant vacancies have increased to 19% with seven of 38 former restaurant spaces closed.

The town council of Crested Butte has certainly noticed, and they agreed at the June 5 meeting to create a pilot program to help budding CB restaurant entrepreneurs get the professional guidance needed to deal with commercial kitchen codes and assist with the related costs because current town staff does not have that expertise.

Council instructed the Community Development department to compile a list of potential commercial architects with the knowledge to help set up commercial kitchens under the current codes regulating such spaces. The idea is that small “mom and pop” restaurant owners would get assistance to maneuver more quickly through the regulatory hoops necessary to launch a restaurant. The council gave the thumbs up to fund a $5,000 pool of money available on a first come, first served basis to pay for an initial consult with such an expert.

Crested Butte Finance Department director Kathy Ridgeway estimated the town has lost between $420,000 and $450,000 in sales tax revenue in the past year as a result of the shuttered restaurants being closed. She said that each restaurant would contribute an average of about $60,000 in sales tax revenue annually.

In a report to council, Community Development director Troy Russ said six of the seven closed restaurant spaces are in various stages of the town’s review process to reopen. He noted that it seems the restaurant owners with deep pockets can afford to navigate the path needed to open. He said Elk Prime and the Wooden Nickel, both owned by the Mark Walter group, replaced their kitchen hoods in a matter of months, while several other restaurants have continued to struggle with a similar upgrade. “It’s taken a long time, a really long time for some of them.” 

“The town does not have experienced commercial architects practicing here. It is more residential focused,” said Russ. “That is a challenge for town. We don’t have the local expertise to help guide those trying to open a commercial business. The town could in theory retain a consulting commercial architect to assist local businesses, for example.”

“Are the old buildings being in a designated historic district an issue?” asked mayor Ian Billick.

“It is nuanced,” replied Russ. “There are certainly some issues with older buildings, but these places sometimes have issues like a residential unit as part of the property and the venting needs to take that into account.”

“I worry that we chase out the small operators trying to make it here and those are the ones we want to be active,” said Billick. “It seems like only the well-financed can afford to navigate the complex process.”

“As a businessperson in town I rely on the town staff for the right questions, and answers,” said councilmember and businessperson Chris Haver. “That stuff is out of my area so I think any help we can provide would be huge.”

“I get nervous about confounding roles,” said Billick. “Someone providing advice that eventually does the inspections can be tricky. I like the idea of being able to clearly separate the functions and providing assistance.”

“We can put together an on-call list of commercial architects that are familiar with the nuances of commercial codes,” said Russ. “I see it as not having a cost to the town. It is more assisting with connecting the dots.”

“There’s a lot of symbolism to the town helping the restaurants right now,” said Billick. For mom and pop operations especially, I’d be okay providing some financial assistance, not a lot but something. Having open restaurants benefits the town. Maybe we pay for one consultation? It actually would help make money for the town. If spending $2,000 can save a restaurant owner three or four months in time getting something open, it adds more revenue to the town.”

Councilmember Gabi Prochaska asked if the town could carve out financial assistance for small operators only. Town attorney Karl Hanlon said probably not. “It’s hard not to make it available for everybody,” he said. “But you could use the money and put it in the economic development area.”

“We saw a lot of restaurant spaces change hands and shut down right as we came out of the pandemic,” said town manager Dara MacDonald. “That seems to be turning and by providing financial assistance that money is easily regenerated.”

“Experience indicates that big business won’t use the money if it’s not a lot,” added Billick. “It’s not worth their time but smaller operators might take advantage of it. It could make a difference.”

“I’d like to think about adding things that can help those in business stay in business,” said councilmember Anna Fenerty, noting there are some Spanish language classes in Gunnison that local businessowners and employees might want offered in Crested Butte. “Maybe we just make people aware of other things that are already out there and that can also help.” 

Billick said he has talked to several businesspeople struggling with getting their restaurant spaces open smoothly and quickly, and he suggested setting aside $5,000 in a consultation fund available on a first come, first served basis. “Let’s see if anyone will even use it,” he said. “I’m not sure anyone will but it’s an effort. I don’t want to squeeze out the mom and pop operators in Crested Butte. Let’s dip our toe in the water.”

“It’s not just a visitor experience issue, it’s a local’s experience issue,” said Haver.

MacDonald said she would start the process of compiling a commercial architect list, making some money available and report back to the council.

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