Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dillant-Hopkins Airport (KEEN) Keene, New Hampshire

Keene still looking for airport tenant, council loosens process

The Keene City Council has loosened the negotiation process for deals with potential tenants for vacant commercial space at the city-owned airport.

Agreements in recent years have fallen through at Dillant-Hopkins Airport, sometimes because of the long process involved in renting from the city, and the council aimed to fix that last week.

It will now allow City Manager John A. MacLean to negotiate a deal to near-completion, before getting a go-ahead from the council.

“The intent was to try to shorten the process,” Mayor Kendall W. Lane said Tuesday. “Right now ... (tenant proposals) go back and forth four or five times before getting back to sign a lease. What we’ve discovered is, people don’t want to wait that long. When somebody’s ready, they’re ready to go and get in there.

“It doesn’t eliminate the need to come back to council to get final approval to sign the lease, but it gets us to the point where we have someone ready to sign a lease before coming back to council.”

The council’s unanimous vote came after a plan for a new Italian restaurant slated to fill the airport space left vacant by India Pavilion last year fell through.

In January, the council voted unanimously to allow owner Gary L. Taylor and head chef Antonio Martino to open an Italian restaurant in the airport space.

But that effort fell through recently when Martino decided to move out of state, Taylor said.

“I’m not a trained chef, so that kind of put the kibosh on the whole thing,” Taylor said Tuesday.

Before Taylor’s proposal, James Tempesta and his business partner Eddie Solomon, co-owners of JimEddie’s Restaurant on Winchester Street, had proposed opening a banquet-style function facility in the same space, but city officials weren’t sold on the idea, Tempesta said.

“They’re pretty stern on the fact that they want a restaurant,” he said Tuesday. “To go off the beaten path to the airport for a restaurant, I think, is a difficult sell.”

Tempesta said he often hears of Keene residents making plans at the Hidden Hills Banquet Facility in Rindge, and thought he could take a corner of the local market to the airport space.

“I think Keene needs (a similar facility) here,” he said, adding that he envisioned hosting events ranging from weddings, dinner shows and barbecues to clam bakes and karaoke.

“I’d want to see 150, 200 people (per function),” he said. “My idea was to take out two of the windows on the airport side and put a deck out there to have more seating, because it just wasn’t big enough for me.”

But city officials didn’t agree with Tempesta on the viability of such a facility, he said, and the deal fizzled.

In both cases, it appears negotiations fell apart for reasons other than time constraints on the part of prospective tenants.

Still, Lane believes the step taken by the council will allow MacLean to negotiate more freely with potential tenants.

Airport Director Ed J. Mattern agreed. “I think in the process of trying to identify a party we’d want to lease to, in many instances I’ve heard ‘We’re interested,’ but when you outline the process to essentially go through getting authority to negotiate, then coming back with arrangements for a deal, all being a public process, people shy away from that,” he said.

Mattern said the adjustment will allow staff to streamline the process, “not so much in that we’re not seeking council authority, but to give some comfort, some relief, to negotiate arrangements and do everything we need to do up until the final signature.

“Obviously,” he said, “it’s not in anybody’s best interest to have these false starts we’ve had.”

If this process works in landing a new airport tenant, Lane said the council could extend it to other cases where the city has to negotiate leases, in an effort to make Keene more business-friendly.