Within three months, ideally, a new barbecue restaurant will open at the city-owned former transportation center on Gilbo Avenue, and with it will come restrooms open to the public.
At least, that’s the plan if negotiations between the city and Ash Sheehan, owner of Taqueria Odelay on Main Street, go as planned. Sheehan, whose restaurant used to be in the space at 12 Gilbo Ave., still has a lease on that site, which he uses as storage. The lease is up at month’s end, however, and the city has been reluctant to renew.
That’s because Jack Dugan of Monadnock Economic Development Corp. has said he has plans for a larger swath of Gilbo Avenue. He envisions the area as an “arts corridor,” whatever that is, and although he hasn’t revealed any set plans yet, city officials have seemed willing to let the transportation center space languish without generating any revenue until he does.
But last week, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon got the go-ahead from the City Council to negotiate a renewal of the lease with Sheehan, with two major stipulations: that he open a new restaurant within 60 to 90 days, and that he allow the public access to the restrooms.
Sheehan says he’s OK with both. Though he’s been focusing his energy on opening a nanobrewery in the former TD Bank on Main Street, he says he’s also been contemplating a barbecue joint, which he feels he can get up and going within the city’s time frame.
The issue of public restrooms has been pushed of late by the Monadnock Interfaith Project. The group’s idea was to open a welcome center for downtown Keene and the region at the Gilbo Avenue site, including restrooms open to the public. But since no one has come forth with a concrete plan to run such a center, the group has argued for simply opening the restrooms — which are accessible from the bike path — or putting in new accommodations in the area.
As compromises go, the lease extension proposal is a good one. It would keep revenue flowing from the property. A barbecue restaurant would fit nicely with the adjoining Yolo Frozen Yogurt shop and potentially with any arts-oriented future plans for the area. And it would provide another restroom downtown for public use, at least during the restaurant’s operating hours.
But it only works as long as it’s viable for Sheehan, who will have a business to run. He says he’s trusting his gut that it will work out — that is, that he won’t have a line out the door of people just looking to use the facilities, with no intention of eating there. But if the restrooms are opened in conjunction with his eatery, will Sheehan be responsible for them? Will he have to stock and maintain them, and be responsible for any damage? It was damage from a fire someone started in the bathroom that caused the city to close the restrooms to the public in the first place. Presumably, these and other questions will be addressed in the final lease agreement.
There’s also the question of fairness. Many restaurants, bars, offices and shops downtown have restrooms the public could theoretically use, but some business owners restrict that use to their employees and/or customers. In any case, there’s no sign downtown pointing the way to which restrooms are accessible. But it will fast become known that Sheehan’s bathrooms are.
He may be signing onto it as a condition of keeping the lease, but that’s unfair to him, compared to other businesses that lease space from the city.
Good for him, and to a degree for the city for trying to find a way to provide publicly accessible bathrooms. But eventually, another solution ought to be sought. And Sheehan’s new lease should have an out in the event that the public’s use of his leased bathroom space becomes a real problem.