Despite struggles, building owner remains optimistic
Nathan L. /
Bob Butler has had mixed success renting his Main Street building
Bob Butler was 12 when he fell in love with
the smell of fresh cut pines, piles of sawdust and logs piled high
around Baker City's sawmill.
Butler, who's now 39, remembers Baker City as a magical place where log trucks shared the wide streets with cars and bicycles.
He was in awe of downtown's tall buildings made of brick and of stone quarried at Pleasant Valley.
Butler recalls how the ranch hands wearing cowboy hats and boots, and
loggers in their steel-toed boots and hacked off pants held up with
suspenders seemed larger than life as they climbed in and out of the
pickup trucks, shopped in downtown stores, ate in downtown restaurants
and exchanged stories of their day felling logs, breaking horses and
"I fell in love with Baker City the first time I saw it," Butler said. "Some of my fondest memories are from that summer."
When that summer vacation to Baker City ended, he had to go back to his home in Texas.
But he never forgot Baker City.
"I always told my wife I was going to move to Baker some day," Butler said.
It took longer than he expected for that day to arrive. At age 34 Butler brought his sons here on a vacation to visit his brother, and they didn't want to leave.
"We had a family meeting and the boys voted to move here," Butler said.
In December of 2003 Butler and his family moved to Baker City. He landed a job at the Powder River Correctional Facility, sold property he owned in Iowa and used the proceeds in 2004 to buy several of the Main Street buildings he'd admired during that summer vacation more than two decades earlier.
"Moving here was like moving to a vacation postcard spot," Butler said.
He started Kicks Sports Wear in one of those buildings and later sold it to Ryan and Kaylin Chaves, who won the 2007 new business of the year award from the Baker County Chamber of Commerce.
He went to work remodeling the Wong and Kennedy buildings on the corner of Main Street and Court Avenue, with plans of running a restaurant and bar on the main floor once occupied by The Royal.
Butler also envisioned renovating into professional offices what had been an upstairs brothel during the mining boom days a century ago. An Odd Fellows Hall complete with a ballroom once occupied part of the building, Butler said.
The remodeling project turned out to be more extensive and more expensive than he had anticipated. Eventually it ate up so much of the money he'd saved that he didn't have enough left to buy what he needed to open the bar and restaurant himself, so he decided to rent out the restaurant and bar space.
His goal was to rent to locals, but those he rented to hadn't been able to make a go of it, so Butler said he was happy to land a contract to bring a Domino's Pizza franchise to a 23-foot wide section of the building.
In a spot where some locally owned businesses have failed, Butler said Domino's is doing so well they're expanding after less than a year in that location.
"They pay the rent every month on time like clockwork," Butler said, adding that it costs him thousands of dollars every time a renter starts a new business and then fails within a year or two and he has to find another renter.
Renting to a franchise appears to have eliminated that problem for the portion of the building rented by Domino's, Butler said.
After a bad experience renting the center restaurant section of the building to the operators of a restaurant called Rascals, Butler said he thought the owners of the Fillin Station restaurant had the right combination of finances and experience to make a go of it.
"It took me totally by surprise when I read the newspaper article a couple weeks ago about the Fillin Station going out of business. That's the first I heard they were having problems," Butler said.
With all the costs associated with his Baker City buildings, including ongoing costs for things like roof repairs and other maintenance work, Butler went looking for another job and wound up enlisting in the military and taking medic training.
"I was in San Antonio, Texas, taking training when someone e-mailed the newspaper article to me," Butler said.
"I offered to give them six months free rent, if that would help, but they said that wouldn't solve the financial problems. They weren't making enough to pay the utilities, buy the food and hire the staff," Butler said.
A string of restaurants in that building have come and gone dating back more than a decade, years before Butler bought the building from Annie Wong in 2004. Butler said an Italian or seafood restaurant, or some other cuisine currently lacking from Baker City's dining repertoire, would succeed in the space vacated by the Fillin Station in December.
"I'd like to see a locally owned restaurant succeed in the spot. I was praying for somebody to put in an Italian restaurant, but for any type of business to succeed, they're going to have a good business plan and at least $50,000 cash for startup and initial operating costs until the business gets going," he said.
Comparing his experience working with the Domino's franchise with locally-owned restaurants, Butler said he believes the biggest difference is that franchises operate on a proven business plan that covers everything from the location and appearance of a store to the menu.
Butler said lack of parking space is one of the biggest problems facing restaurants.
That has definitely been a contributing factor to the failures of restaurants that formerly occupied his buildings, but Butler said it hasn't been as big a problem for Domino's because their busiest hours are in the evening when other downtown stores are closed, and because of their focus on pizza delivery.
Even walk-in customers at Domino's don't generally wait around for their pizza or other food to be cooked, and few sit there to eat it, so their customers are in and out, as opposed to other types of restaurants where people come in to dine and may spend an hour or two over dinner, drinks and dessert, Butler said.
Local officials have discussed several ways to create more parking downtown, and Butler likes the idea of converting Main Street from parallel parking to diagonal, which could be best done by converting from four lanes to three lanes (one traffic lane in each direction with a turn lane in the middle).
Another option that intrigues Butler is leaving parallel parking along the curbs on Main Street, but adding diagonal parking in the center of the street, with a center turn lane at both ends of each block.
In the process of adding more parking on Main Street, Butler said he'd also like to see traffic re-routed from Highway 30 and Highway 7 from Main Street to Resort Street. That change would work best if done to coincide with an urban renewal project to renovate the Resort Street entrances on the back side of Main Street businesses, buying up property on the west side of Resort Street creating attractive city parking lots with park-like areas, benches and shade trees.
Butler also suggests the city improve the entrance to the downtown area, more clearly identify Main Street and the historic district, and put together an incentive package to relocate businesses that don't fit in with the historic theme, possibly using those sites for parking lots or downtown green park space.
"Main Street needs some fantastic bookends to draw attention to it," Butler said, adding that in his opinion the Baker City historic district is hard for tourists to find.
Between Domino's, Kicks Sports Wear and the Fillin Station (before it closed) Butler said he felt good about having a hand in bringing more than 30 jobs to Main Street.
He said his sale of the Kennedy Building on the corner of Main and Court to Rustin Smith will also be a positive as Smith is gutting the former bar, removing the stainless steel floor and converting the building into offices and possibly some retail space.