The North Platte Quality Growth Fund Citizen Review Committee lent its support Wednesday to two requests for funds, including refurbishing the former Depot restaurant.The first was a $30,000 grant to Mark and Dee Lutrell to renovate and reopen the old restaurant, which will be known as the Switchyard Grill and Pub, the new owners said.
The Lutrells told the committee they tried hard to secure the Depot name, but complications were holding up the whole process.
“We kicked around some ideas this weekend and came up with Switchyard,” Dee said.
The building was built in 1928. Mark said the structure is sound but in strong need of maintenance that’s been ignored for several years.
The Lutrells are committing $100,000 to repair and upgrade the building, an amount Mark said is only that low because he is the head of Dowhower Construction -- the president of the board of directors.
“I’m doing this at the absolute bare bones price, just so it can get done,” he said. “If anyone else tried to do it, those costs could be half or two-thirds again as much.”
The amount of work required for the interior of the building is extensive, as well.
“They walked out with the tables set and grease still in the fryer,” Dee said of previous ownership. The Lutrells estimate it will cost $6,000 just to have the kitchen professionally cleaned.
The point-of-sale system needs to be replaced, which will be a considerable expense as well, she added.
Mark said the sewer system in the kitchen needs to be replaced, a project that could prove to be tremendously expensive, depending on what all needs to be done.
The Lutrells said the restaurant will create 28 jobs, most of them part-time. The manager, head chef, and assistant chef positions will be full time. If the restaurant is unable to find chefs, 3-5 good cooks will be retained at or near full time hours, they said.
“It’s a place North Platte is really missing,” Dee said.
The Lutrells said the $30,000 grant would go toward reopening the restaurant, not repairing the building. They estimate it will cost $100,000 to repair the building and $140,000 to reopen the restaurant, and that doesn’t count the cost of purchasing the property.
Committee member Pat Keenan thanked the Lutrells for their investment.
“We’re sorely lacking principle investment in North Platte,” he said. Keenan said he was comfortable with both the amount requested and the percentage of total investment the grant would represent.
However, he shared his concern that there are a number of similar businesses within a few blocks of the old Depot.
“None of them received Quality Growth Fund money,” Keenan noted. He asked the Lutrells what made this project different.
Mark said one difference is the sheer amount of work and money that needs to go into rehabilitating the property so it can be used. He said it likely wouldn’t be feasible unless the property developer was also a contractor, as he is.
“We feel the grant is vital to the success of the project, given all that we are investing,” Mark said.
The Lutrells pointed out that the building is of historical value, and if they didn’t purchase and rehabilitate it, it would likely continue to deteriorate.
“We probably could have found a less expensive building if all we were looking to do was open a restaurant,” Mark said.
Keenan said he was worried about getting into the practice of picking winners. However, he said he was more comfortable with the money going toward the renovation of a historic building than to the opening of another restaurant.
Chamber of Commerce President Gary Person said that if the investment goes into the building, then the asset that will continue to serve the community.
With the members in agreement that money be directed toward rehabilitating the building, instead of purchasing items for the restaurant, the review committee voted 3-0 to recommend the $30,000 grant be approved by the City Council.
Brock Wurl, Pat Keenan, and Bob Phares voted in favor. David Fudge was absent and Kim Steger recused herself from voting because she is involved in the project as a bank lender.
Once the matter of the Switchyard Grill and Pub was settled, the review committee heard a proposal from Person about an incentive program to attract skilled workers to the community.
Person requested that $350,000 from the growth fund be earmarked for the program, which will provide matching funds to employers up to $10,000 for bonuses for skilled workers who come into the community.
Person said the program only applies to employees coming into the community from outside Lincoln County.
“That way, you’re not using it to steal an employee from a business in your own backyard,” he said.
Employers can qualify for the program if they are looking to fill a position that pays at least $20 per hour. The prospective employee would qualify for the $10,000 bonus in exchange for a three-year commitment.
One third of the bonus would be forgiven after each year, so long as the employee remains in North Platte. Otherwise, the portion of the bonus paid by the chamber would need to be paid back at 6-percent interest over four years, Person said.
The program will only be available to members in good standing of the Chamber of Commerce, which caused Keenan to voice some concern again.
“This is tax money we are dealing with on our end,” he said. “Why should it only go to the good ol’ boys already in the Chamber of Commerce?”
Person said it is appropriate because the Chamber is the official applicant for the funds, and will take on the work of administering the program.
The committee voted 4-0 in favor of recommending approval to the city council.
Person said the council is expected to take up the two grants on March 21. The quality growth fund currently contains about $3 million, Person said Thursday.
Among the more particular details:
The incentive is limited to two employees per business.
New employees can use the $10,000 incentive for one of the following purposes:
• Student Loan Reduction;
• Senior/Late Year Scholarship at 4-year college or graduate program;
• Scholarship for trade school or community college;
• Moving/Relocation expenses;
• Down payment assistance on home purchase or utility deposits;
• Purchase of tooling or equipment needed for a specific trade
• Combination of all of the above.
If an employer only wants to participate in a smaller incentive amount, say $2,000, the matching funds would be that amount also.