Future of Docks uncertainWritten by Kristen Criswell | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s administration had a vision for Downtown restaurants along the Maumee River. After approaching 24 different local and national restaurateurs, including chains such as T.G.I. Friday’s and Dave & Busters, Tom and Eileen Cousino took a “risk” and made an investment with the first restaurant at The Docks, Finkbeiner said.
After nearly 15 years in business at The Docks, Front Street Ventures, run by the Cousinos, closed the doors at the Navy Bistro, Tango’s Cantina and Courtyard at the Navy.
“It’s a tragedy that they’re out of business,” Finkbeiner said. “It doesn’t matter who replaces them, if it’s a big chain or Toledo restaurant. A company that has been with Toledo that long, was the first company to reside at The Docks, it breaks my heart that they’re not going to be there in 2011.”
The City of Toledo, which owns The Docks, was notified Jan. 6 that Front Street Ventures would shut its establishments at the waterside location due to financial problems.
Front Street Ventures had been in arrears on its rent obligations to the City for the spaces, so in January 2009 the company entered into a payment plan.
Each month, Front Street Ventures was supposed to pay $13,000 for the facilities; it owes $99,000 in back rent.
“Everyone feels for Tom and Eileen, for what they have brought for the city and the region. The Cousinos helped East Toledo and Oregon,” said Dean Monske, deputy mayor of external relations for the city. “It’s sad that the economy would lead to this for them.”
“As their landlord, we don’t want to see them depart. We’d much rather see that they’re full and vibrant,” he said.
Tom Cousino told Toledo Free Press on Jan. 6, “We had 15 nice years and gave Toledo every ounce of energy we had. We are proud of our restaurants and what we created. I just want to thank Toledo for the past 15 years.”
He declined to reflect further on his business ventures at The Docks since he’s “still in the midst of everything.”
History at The Docks
Navy Bistro, once called Old Navy Bistro, opened in 1996 three years before another restaurant opened at The Docks. In 1999, Eileen’s Wine Bar opened within in the Navy Bistro and in 2000, Tango’s opened.
Cousino also helped manage Gumbo’s Bayou Grille, later known as Dockside Grille, for several years.
“You really have to thank Tom Cousino. Without his courage and entrepreneurial spirit, there wouldn’t be any Docks,” said Toledo City Councilman Mike Craig, whose district includes The Docks.
Craig said the venues were “excellent” places to eat and entertain at and their closing is a true loss for the city.
Prior to housing restaurants, the land that is currently The Docks was home to a city garage. In 1995, the city began converting the space to a commercial zone.
To date the city still owes $1.66 million of the roughly $2.7 million in bonds for The Docks project. The bonds were to be paid back by rent from the property.
The Real Seafood and Zia’s Italian Restaurant, both owned by Mainstreet Ventures, and Metropolis are still open at The Docks. Julie White, director of marketing for Mainstreet Ventures, said the company’s restaurants at the Docks have been up in sales during the past year.
Speculation as to why the restaurants would fail include the troubled economy and road construction.
Between 2000 and 2008, off-and-on construction to the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge may have hindered patrons from reaching The Docks.
“[Sales] were definitely slower when the bridge was closed,” said Kelly Becker, general manager of the Real Seafood Co. “It was more challenging for the guest to get to us.”
Becker said she was surprised when Front Street Ventures announced the closing of its three locations.
“I was sad. They’ve been down here at The Docks longer than we have and have been such great neighbors. I didn’t realize they were struggling. Our business has been increasing steadily every year,” she said.
Moussa Salloukh, president of the Northwest Ohio Restaurant Association, worked between Navy Bistro and Tango’s for nine years.
Salloukh said he’d guess that bridge and road construction would be the main causes for the business failing.
“It was always a struggle with people being able to get over to us,” he said.
Salloukh said many independent restaurants are struggling because of the economy right now, and that could be another cause for the failure.
“I think like anything else we’re struggling,” he said. “We have more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the United State. Chains tend to have deep pockets and can wait out the economy. A lot of great independent operators are going under.”
The Docks won’t sit empty for very long, said Cathy Miller, interim president of Destination Toledo. The closing of any restaurant so near to the convention center is always a blow to tourism, but Miller believes strongly that the space will fill, she said.
“It’s prime real estate; riverfront view, with places for people to dock off Lake Erie and the Maumee River. It’s a sure thing it won’t sit for very long,” she said.
If history is any indicator, Miller’s prediction will come true. Throughout its short history The Docks has seen several tenants come and go.
Hoster Brewing Co., Oasis on the River Mediterranean Cuisine, The Dirty Martini Lounge and Flaming Pit Barbeque & Blues all were tenants of The Docks.
The city is working to find a tenant for the property, Monske said. Since announcing the closing of the Front Street Venture properties on Jan. 6, the city has received calls from roughly a dozen parties interested in the space, he said.
In addition to looking for a tenant for the property, the city is actively searching for someone to purchase The Docks, as well as a number of other sites around Toledo, Monske said.
“Anything that brings tenants into that facility is definitely a benefit to the city; if it’s us who owns it or even someone else,” he said. “Right now, we’re not collecting any rent and that’s costing taxpayers more money.”
The city has spoken with investors from China, Mexico and Turkey about business opportunities in Toledo, Monske said.
“We’re interested in selling the properties to anyone foreign, domestic and all that’s in between,” he said.
Marketing the different properties is “nothing new” for the administration and is something it’s been talking about since working on the 2010 budget, Monske said.