Bradenton Beach officials have acknowledged the possibility that a poorly written lease agreement and a lack of oversight played a part in ending Rotten Ralph’s Restaurant five-year run on the Historic Bridge Street Pier.
While concessionaire Dave Russell maintains it was the terms of his lease with the city that made it impossible to maintain a long-term relationship, all parties also agree that Russell signed the lease.
Russell fell behind in his $9,000-a-month rent following the June 2012 arrival of Tropical Storm Debby, which temporarily shut down the pier, but more importantly caused a long-term closure of the adjacent floating dock used by boaters bringing passengers to the pier.
Rotten Ralph’s began to recover a few months later but, according to Russell, who said he tried to make his monthly payment after a couple of months, the city could not accept partial payments under the terms of the lease.
The debt spiraled to more than $65,000 and, according to city attorney Ricinda Perry, late fees, maintenance fees and utility payments pushed the debt to more than $250,000.
Russell also revealed that the lease required him to pay the city about 40 percent of the pier’s maintenance costs. Under those terms, Rotten Ralph’s would have been required to pay for 40 percent of the upcoming pier renovation project to replace 151 pilings and the wood deck.
Perry later confirmed that obligation, but said she could not recall the exact percentage.
After weeks of negotiations, the city and Russell officially parted ways May 18 with a settlement agreement for Russell to pay up to date his utility bills, a $14,000 Waste Pro bill and a $15,000 settlement fee to the city.
In exchange, Russell agreed to amicably accept the termination of his lease and close the doors to Rotten Ralph’s.
At a May 21 department head meeting, Ric Gatehouse, the only commissioner to support the city working with Russell to keep Ralph’s open, asked city clerk Nora Idso how the restaurant’s overdue fees went unnoticed for so long.
Idso, who has been battling health problems, took responsibility.
“I take full responsibility as the city’s chief financial officer,” she said. “In the future, someone is going to be designated to monitor that.”
However, Idso said it was a previous commission and city attorney who drafted and approved the lease and she urged commissioners to pursue a more workable lease for a new tenant.
“This commission needs to see what they charge and how they charge,” she said. “I’m not making excuses on my end, but when it comes to you, I urge you to look closely at a new agreement and make sure we aren’t leaving anything out.”
Idso said there has been a lot of interest in the vacated restaurant and said the city will issue a request for proposal to see what interested parties “can offer the city.”
Idso said sending out an RFP enhances competition.
A lot of discussion then focused on how to get the word out to potential new tenants to bid for the pier restaurant lease.
Idso listened to several ideas from commissioners before suggesting a workshop with a single focus on drawing business interest to the pier.
Police Chief Sam Speciale said the final walkthrough of the restaurant with Russell went well and that the facility, for the most part, is in good shape.
“There are no major construction issues,” he said. “There are some minor things to address. Someone is going to have to clean the kitchen and grease hood professionally. The carpeting is trash, and there are some things in the attic that looks like junk.”
The air conditioner also needs some attention, but Speciale said as far as the carpet and painting goes, “It will be up to the new tenant because we have no idea what kind of motif they will want.”
The bait kiosk next to the restaurant’s front door also was run by Rotten Ralph’s and is closed.
Speciale has previously said water taxi businesses are interested in using the pier now that the adjacent floating dock is repaired.
Repairs to the floating dock were completed May 22 and commissioners held a ribbon-cutting ceremony May 24 to celebrate the reopening after more than a year of the dock being closed.
Speciale said one of the water taxi companies has expressed interest in leasing the bait kiosk.
Russell has closed the doors of Rotten Ralph’s on the pier and a chapter of his life, but will open new doors and a new chapter soon.
He said he has secured a new location at 34th Street West and 59th Avenue in Bradenton in what used to be Beef ‘O’ Brady’s restaurant.
Russell said he likes the location and his overhead costs will be a third of what they were on the pier.
“All of the equipment is moved,” he said. “Considering how upset I was and feel the city did not and would not negotiate in good faith with me, it couldn’t have turned out better.”
Russell said he has retained all of his Rotten Ralph’s employees and it’s back to business.
“We are right back at things without the politics,” he said.