Jazz and wine fans could be lifting a glass in Kent's newest wine bar, The Secret Cellar, by the Kent Heritage Festival on July Fourth weekend.
Kent City Council voted Wednesday to sign off on a trex liquor license transfer for the new jazz club, which plans to open in the lower level of the restored landmark Acorn Corner building downtown.
Developer Ron Burbick, who's responsible for the building's renovation and the adjacent Acorn Alley projects, gave detailed plans for the business to council as part of yesterday's formal request for the transfer.
Burbick is serving as a development partner in the club, which will be owned by Cuyahoga Falls residents Jim and Amy Bragg.
"Their concept, my concept, is we’re really a jazz club," Burbick said. "We’re not a bar as such. We’ll be serving wine and limited beer."
Council unanimously signed off on the liquor license transfer request for Secret Cellar after modifying the city's requirements for such a transfer. The approval also came after council declined action on a second liquor license request from the investors in the Twisted Root Cellars wine and beer bar, which is proposed for the Kent Stage building.
With yesterday's approval, Burbick said the target opening date for the new jazz club is June 15 at the earliest, but they expect to open by the Kent Heritage Festival at the latest.
Modified liquor license regulations
Wednesday council finished talks that started months ago to change the regulations council established in September 2012 spelling out the requirements businesses had to meet before the city would sign off on a trex transfer.
Last year, council set rules — largely adhering to the state regulations for trex transfers — requiring businesses seeking a trex to invest at least $750,000 in the new business structure, have a minimum 4,000 square feet with alcohol sales accounting for no more than 25 percent of total sales.
Then earlier this year, as numerous business entities started asking city officials about trex transfers, council started to reconsider those local regulations and ponder whether they should be altered.
Kent City Manager Dave Ruller said city administrators took into account recent debates council had on the issue and realized that a one-size-fits-all criteria didn't make practical sense.
"At the end of the day, to be fair to everybody … why not cap it?" Ruller said. "I think on the practical level that makes the most sense."
Council voted, at the recommendation of city administrators, to limit the number of trex liquor license transfers into the city at three for one year. Administrators and council will review the issue again in a year to see if the cap should be adjusted.
The vote, which took place in committee, also lowered the investment level to $175 per square foot and requires all trex transfers to include a development agreement negotiated between city administrators and the business owners.
Each trex must also clarify the class of the liquor permit, such as whether it's a full-service D5 permit, and trex transfers are limited to locations within the city's central business district downtown.
"What I’m trying to do with the motion is establish a guideline to prevent somebody from coming in that would not want to invest any capital in the project," Councilman Garret Ferrara said.
Council critical of Twisted Root
Gary Gardner, one of three investors in Twisted Root Cellars, spoke to council about his partners' request for a trex transfer to open a wine and beer bar in the corner of the Kent Stage building.
Gardner and his partners were initially granted a variance by council in early April approving their request for a trex transfer based, in part, on a business plan Gardner had provided to the city that detailed projected investment costs, employees and square footage.
Late last month council reversed that decision citing questions about Gardner's plans.
Kent Law Director Jim Silver said the city started to draft a development agreement for Twisted Root Cellars based on their business plan.
But Gardner said those figures were preliminary and he couldn't guarantee he and his investment partners would meet the investment, square feet or employee figures — all of which were lower than the initial trex regulations — spelled out in the draft development agreement.
"Right now we’ve got some big ‘ifs’ with the space," he said. "I think the biggest problem we have with all the criteria is the enforcement mechanism built into the development agreement."
Part of the city's enforcement measure is the revocation of the trex transfer if the business fails to meet the requirements spelled out in the individual development agreement.
He asked council to sign off on the request and trust that he and his partners would deliver on their promise to open a quality business in the space. But he said they couldn't promise to meet the requirements in the draft development agreement that call for a $267,000 investment that employees seven people.
"We’re going to do what our business plan says," Gardner said. "But I can’t promise the numbers."
He said they couldn't confirm the $267,000 investment figure because it depends on whether or not they use the basement space and the exact costs of construction may vary depending on the contractor.
And determining a more definitive construction expense would cost $25,000 in architectural drawing and consulting fees, Gardner said. He added that they didn't want to spend that money without assurances that they would get the trex transfer approval.
"If we have to worry about the rug being pulled out from under us a year after the fact because we only have six employees, then why would we invest any money?" he said.
But council members rebuffed that argument as a cost of doing business.
Councilman Garret Ferrara said Gardner and his partners will at some point need to make the determination about using the basement space and other details before ever moving forward with the project.
"Council has shown a willingness to work with you," he said. "Can you go out, knowing that council is willing to work with you, and spend the money to do that? If you can’t, then I would say how do you operate a business?"
Kent City Manager Dave Ruller said the city has executed numerous development agreements, similar to the draft agreement with Twisted Root, that spell out the promises business owners plan to deliver on.
"That’s the issue," Ruller said. "What is being committed?"
Councilman Roger Sidoti, who was sharply critical of Gardner's plan, said council's duty in signing off on trex transfers is to leverage those new liquor licenses to spur economic development.
"Maybe you don’t have the resources to provide economic development to the city of Kent at this point if you’re not willing to make commitments that this council would like to see," Sidoti said.
Council took no action on the trex transfer request from Twisted Root Wednesday.
Secret Cellar gains support
Dressed to the nines, Burbick and the Braggs presented a detailed business plan to council for the Secret Cellar jazz club planned for Acorn Corner.
The business plan spelled out the jazz club space total investment, which numbers above $1 million, number of employees (14 full-time), seating layout for 140, alcohol and food sales percentages (48.5 percent split) and square feet available in the space (3,049).
Burbick said the state requirements include wine sales in the "food" percentage, and based on that calculation alcohol sales are projected to be 21.7 percent of total sales.
"Unlike the previous speaker, we have costed everything down to the nickel," he said. "Our designers have already done the design work."
Burbick added that they would be willing to sign a development agreement that stipulates commitments based on their business plan.
Amy Bragg said the speakeasy-themed club will be open five days a week from 3-11pm Tuesday through Thursday and from 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
She said after the meeting that they have spent months researching the operational aspect of the business and the related expenses.
"We're ready," Bragg said.
Kent City Manager Dave Ruller said city administrators recommended approval of the trex request for Secret Cellar.
"I don’t think there’s, from the staff end, any doubt of the capabilities that’s been demonstrated in the renovation of the hotel and the Phoenix project … and the sort of work Mr. Burbick’s been able to deliver," Ruller said. "I would certainly say we have the highest trust in this developer to deliver the goods."
Council voted unanimously to grant the trex transfer, but it won't be official until the development agreement is back up for vote at council's regular meeting later this month.
"Almost any question I would have has been covered," Councilman John Kuhar said after Burbick's presentation.