Perhaps Sussex County officials should enlist the assistance of Chef Robert Irvine from the Food Network TV show “Restaurant: Impossible.” On the reality show, Irvine has a budget of $10,000 and two days to transform struggling restaurants.
During its Dec. 11 meeting, Sussex County Council debated the difficulties of operating a restaurant at the county airport outside Georgetown. The debate surfaced when Deputy County Administrator Hal Godwin alerted council the current tenants of the Lighthouse Landing Restaurant, Paul and Mary Buchness, would close the restaurant at the end of December unless concessions were made. They have five months remaining on their four-year lease and want the county to subsidize the business by reducing the rent paying all utilities.
Godwin said he met with the couple and worked out an agreement to keep the restaurant open until March, allowing the county time to find another restauranteur. Under terms of the agreement, the monthly rent would be reduced to $1 for January, February and March.
Sussex County Council approved the plan and also voted to proceed with a request for proposals to find another tenant to operate the restaurant.
Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, said the request for proposals should not be restrictive. “Back off and keep it simple,” he said.
Under original lease terms, the restaurant was to be open seven days a week offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. In mid-2010, county council agreed to amend terms of the lease allowing the couple to control the hours of operation. Dinner hours were cut back to four days a week, and by the end of 2010, dinner service was completely cut out.
“It's a bad economy and a tough location,” Cole said. “Business has gradually gone downhill. If Paul [Buchness] can't do it, I question if anyone can. I'm not in favor of any subsidies.”
Cole said the county should have a contingency plan ready in case there is no interest from other restauranteurs. Godwin said other restauranteurs have expressed interest in the airport restaurant.
Airport manager Jim Hickin said the restaurant provides a very important service to the airport.
Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, asked how much the restaurant was costing the county. “We are losing money, but we keep trying and trying,” Finance Director Susan Webb said.
The county pays for maintenance and also covers some utility costs. Webb said she would get a definitive figure for Deaver and the rest of council.
Godwin said it was critical to get the request for proposals out as soon as possible. The county hopes to have bids in hand by Friday, Jan. 25, 2013.