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Four Reasons Why Berea's Depot Restaurant Stalled

07.21.18 04:32 PM – Andy McDonald
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A train depot-themed restaurant? One successful Berea entrepreneur wanted to make it happen.
What was the deal with the proposed restaurant at Berea’s historic L&N train depot?

A couple of years ago, a successful restauranteur (founder of a highly successful Kentucky restaurant chain) approached the city with an intriguing idea. He had toured the central United States and had done extensive research to determine the kind of restaurant that would succeed in Artisan Village, more commonly known as Old Town.

This businessman explored small tourist towns and dined at many restaurants to sample menus, look at décor, and from those experiences, he came up with what he thought was a winning formula for a new restaurant in Berea. The restaurant would of course have a railroad theme, thus preserving, displaying, and celebrating the history of the L&N depot.

Additionally, the restaurant was to feature farm products grown in Berea and Madison County. That “farm-to-table” concept that is popular with younger consumers, in theory, would have allowed local farmers to profit by selling their goods to the train-themed restaurant. In the process, tourist dollars would flow into the local economy not only to the restaurant, but also to Berea’s farmers and entrepreneurs.

There were two other arguments in favor of a railroad-themed restaurant in Artisan Village. One held that such an establishment would draw more tourist traffic into Berea’s arts district and thus boost the craft economy. Another was that a restaurant could serve as one more venue in Berea for parties, wedding receptions and other special events.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the major sticking points of the plan was money.

The idea was that the city would retain ownership of the depot, but it would initially pay to upgrade the facility’s kitchen and facility at a cost of several thousands of dollars. Over time, the city was to recoup the cost of that investment, since said restauranteur would pay the city rent for the property, and indirectly, the restaurant would help bring more business to the city.

The city administration was on board with the restauranteur’s idea, and money was budgeted for the possible refurbishing of the building, subject to the city council’s approval. But it went nowhere. I have a few theories as to why.

1. Alcohol: The idea of a depot-themed restaurant may have been a delayed casualty of the alcohol fight a few years back. For some, that loss still stings, and they’d rather not see a Berea landmark be used to sell wine and spirits. They can’t turn back the clock on alcohol sales in Berea (not without considerable effort and expense, anyway) but they might be able to stem alcohol’s influence by blocking a new restaurant in Artisan Village.

2. A Bridge Too Far: Some have argued the city should not be in the property business, and they sure don’t think the city should be in the restaurant business. But the city maintains the restauranteur would be the one in the restaurant business, and that he/she would always be the one to bear most of the risk. In the worst-case scenario, if the restaurant didn’t work out, the city would still own the improved property that could be rented out for receptions, specials events, and gatherings.

3. Train museum: Some folks firmly believe that creating a train museum would have a better chance of success than a restaurant. But again, that raises the question of how to bring foot traffic into Artisan Village to view the museum. Also, there’s the cost of actually running it. Unlike the restaurant, the cost of advertising and maintaining a museum facility would rest solely with the city, and thus, taxpayers.

4. The Politics of the Times: Farm-to-table and eco-tourism have political undertones. I’d venture that some in Berea don’t like a farm-to-table concept for ideological reasons. They might figure that if farmer’s market-type entrepreneurs started making too much money, that could be a boon to the folks who participate in supposedly “way out” projects like Berea’s Urban Farm. Some hold those ideas in suspicion because they are supposedly “liberal” when, in fact, they have proven to be just good business models in some communities, as the restauranteur discovered.

What then, was ultimately the reason for not moving forward on the depot-themed restaurant? The truth is that has never been fully explored, and citizens really haven’t had the chance to yet to express an opinion for or against such an idea. Hopefully, residents can voice their opinion either way sometime in the future.

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