Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Restaurant may not fly: Longtime owners feel left out of future plans at Fitchburg Municipal Airport (KFIT)

FITCHBURG -- Gene and Steve's Airport Restaurant recently celebrated its 30th year at Fitchburg Municipal Airport, but now may be leaving the spot for good.

The airport restaurant has been owned and operated by Gene Collette and Steve Shank since 1985. It will close on July 31, when tenants must vacate the current airport administration building before it is demolished.

When the new administration building opens its restaurant space, which is currently under construction, its possible Collette and Shank won't be serving customers there.

"This is my life," Collette said, gesturing at the restaurant's interior. "This is it, and it could be coming to an end right here."

Thanks to money from the state and a mandate from the Federal Aviation Administration, Fitchburg Municipal Airport will have a new administration building by this summer. The new building will have a restaurant space, but as a non-aviation tenant in an airport building, Massachusetts Procurement Law requires that the new restaurant space go out to bid.

The airport will submit a request for proposals for construction within the new, 747-square-foot restaurant space, including cost breakdown.

Any restaurant owners who want to submit a proposal will have a chance to do so, with the Board of Airport Commissioners responsible for choosing the winning bid.

Gene Collette, owner of Gene & Steve's Airport Restaurant. 

Collette said he was told over the past two years by former airport commissioners Joe Poznick, Steve Brousseau and Kit Walker that he would be able to "slide right in" to the new building.

"They said we would get priority," Collette said.

Poznick said he "shouldn't comment," as he is no longer a commissioner, and Walker could not be reached for comment.

Current Commission Chairman Jack Naylor said, "I have no knowledge of what previous commissioners said or why.

"Naylor added that he "heard Collette was told he would have priority, but it's been widely known that this has to go out to bid."

Collette provided the Sentinel & Enterprise with an email from Brousseau, dated June 2014, in which he told Collette the commissioners would "address all of (his) concerns" with the move to the new restaurant space.

However, Airport Manager Steve Ellis said the commissioners, who no longer work for the city, "did not have the authority" to assure Collette he would have priority.

"By law, that space has to go out to bid, and there is no guarantee that they will win that bid," Ellis said of Collette and Shank. "If somebody comes back with a better bid, they're going to get the space.

"He added that "30 years of history is absolutely something to take into consideration," and could work in Collette's favor.

But even if Collette's restaurant is chosen for the new space, it will face the additional problem of having to wait to reopen.

Because there is no chosen bid yet, there is no design for the kitchen, and construction cannot begin until a design is completed.

"Now I'm out of a job," Collette said, adding that it could be months before the new restaurant space is ready.

Ellis said every effort will be made to limit the time between the current restaurant closing and a new restaurant opening.

"Ideally, we would be able to shut down operations in this building one day and be up and running in the new building the next," he said. "We're going to try and make that happen, but we'll see."

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