Washington City Council Chambers

Downtown Washington business owners Tuesday questioned the city’s marketing of a landmark building under rehabilitation, and how rent is being determined.

Rick Marquart, who with his wife, Karen, own Marquart’s Landing and Cowan’s Restaurant, spoke on behalf of Washington restaurateurs and others who took issue with the requests for proposals sent by city staff for the Waterworks Building located at Rennick Riverfront Park.

The Marquarts also are owners of Otis Campbell’s and other businesses and buildings, including a new restaurant, Benito’s, slated to open in the coming weeks.

“For the city of Washington to promote and send letters targeting a specific industry, such as wineries, breweries and restaurants or bars to go into its Waterworks Building we feel is going a little far,” Marquart told the city council.

“We love the idea of restoring this beautiful building that pretty much sits in a park area, but feel the government should  not decide what type of industry they want in their rental buildings — especially if it is competing with the private sector,” Marquart added.

On Aug. 26, the council agreed to hire Horn Architects, Washington, to oversee the restoration of the Waterworks Building. The city tentatively agreed to lease the building for the first time in 20 years since it began to house Waterworks Antiques.

Downtown Washington Inc. and the city collaborated to attract a restaurant, winery, brewery or similar type of business based on the idea it would fit well Downtown. Tentative plans call for a tasting room with light fare to be operated by a microbrewery in conjunction with a local winery. The business is considering a May grand opening, but no additional details about the business have been made public.

Competition

Earlier this year, the city sent out a public request for proposals (RFP), and also targeted Washington businesses with a liquor license, and area wineries and breweries, city staff said.

“The phone calls I received when the letter came out were astronomical,” Marquart stated. “This was a shock to my family, my competitors and especially the Cavins who just spent their hard-earned money operating a winery (Vino di Lafayette) in our Downtown.”

He added that the new tenant of the Waterworks Building will be competition to many Downtown businesses.

“Before we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating a building and bringing outside business to compete against us and our very own tax dollars, how about spending it on helping the businesses that have been here through thick and thin, during the worst of economies?” Marquart asked.

He added that there are infrastructure improvements he would like to see be made Downtown, including new sidewalks, burying of power lines and a leak from city property to the basement of Otis Campbell’s. See a related story about Downtown improvements.

Furthermore, Marquart said a new establishment — like the one proposed at the Waterworks Building — will saturate the market.

“I honestly get your vision on this. I feel I have good vision as well for our Downtown, but I also feel this type of industry is growing too fast to sustain each individual business, even in a solid economy,” he said. “The only reason I am here is I want you to see our point of view.”

Sales Tax Talks

According to Darren Lamb, city administrator, talks of renovating the Waterworks Building began in 2018 during the push to renew the capital improvement sales tax.

At the time, the need for a new HVAC system, new windows and tuck pointing was identified.

“There was a lot of work that I feel for years did not take place,” Lamb added.

The Waterworks Antiques owners said early this year that they would not renew their lease, Lamb explained. They had been paying $900 per month for rent.

That’s when the city and Downtown Washington Inc. began discussing a good fit for the building.

“We started talking about what we could do to get a sustainable tenant in there, helping us keep the life of that building rather than it be on the backs of the taxpayers all the time,” Lamb stated. “Why not see if we can get a tenant in there to help improve the building.”

There is a total of $110,000 of sales tax funds earmarked for the building and train depot.

“We have always had some type of business in there competing with something,” Lamb added. “It just wasn’t competing with bars. It was an antique shop and we have three or four of those around town.”

As talks continued, Lamb explained, the city and Downtown Washington Inc. agreed that businesses such as a winery, brewery or similar establishment, or some type of recreational business, such as a bicycle rental, would fit the Downtown environment.

Rent of Building

Marquart questioned how the amount of rent would be determined for the new tenant.

According to Lamb, the city sought input from Downtown Washington Inc. for a fair price for rent. He noted that the city will receive “market rate” for the monthly rent.

“We do not want to subsidize rent for somebody to run a business,” he said. “Unfortunately, I think that has been done in the past with some of the buildings down on the riverfront.”

Marquart asked if the building is being renovated specifically for this new business.

“The city is doing all of the improvements to keep it renovated enough to be anybody’s building at some point in time,” Lamb replied.