Are we going to lose Tin Fish?

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I have to admit I was alarmed by the email that was forwarded to me last Friday, written by a neighborhood activist: 

“Dear friends and neighbors:
The outcome of Wednesday’s Park Board meeting was not good:  the Finance Committee voted in favor of an amendment by (commissioner) Bob Fine to the negotiated contract with the Tin Fish; the amended contract, if approved by the full board next Wednesday, will force the Tin Fish to close. The Park Board is not playing by the rules and we stand to lose a beloved asset to our neighborhood and city.”

The message went on to urge concerned neighbors to contact Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board commissioners, put up flyers in the neighborhood, and come to the Lake Calhoun Pavilion on Saturday to learn more and show their support for the popular seafood restaurant. The response was tremendous – WCCO and KARE showed up with camera crews, and the organizers collected more than 200 signatures urging the Park Board to find a fair solution. 

Let me state my bias up front: I am a big fan of Tin Fish. Carol and I live in walking/ biking distance of Lake Calhoun, and we look forward to the annual open in late April with the same enthusiasm that baseball fans await opening day. The quality of the seafood is first-rate, and prices are very reasonable. I like the looks of Sea Change and the new Oceanaire in downtown Minneapolis, but when it comes to ambience, you can’t beat the view of the lake from the patio tables at Tin Fish.

The owners of Tin Fish have done a terrific job, and their success has paved the way for more pavilion restaurants in Minneapolis parks – Sea Salt at Minnehaha Falls, and Bread & Pickle at the Lake Harriet bandshell (although I hope Bread & Pickle will expand their very limited menu.) 

But after showing up at the Saturday meeting and hearing both sides of the story, from Tin Fish’s owners Atena and Sheff Priest, and from Park Board commissioner Brad Bourn, and reading emails from all parties concerned, it sounds like the whole thing is a bit of a tempest in a teapot – or maybe in this case a tempest in a deep-fat fryer. The story that I am hearing is that everybody is eager to find a compromise.

It’s a complicated story, and I don’t have the time to do the serious investigative digging it would take to report it completely. But as I understand it, the Priests had the option to renew their contract provided they met some benchmarks for making required investments in the property. They say they tried to make the investments (and made some of them), but couldn’t get timely responses from the Park Board, (which has had some turnover and budget cuts in the past few years.) Bob Fine, in an email to a constituent, said that Tin Fish “elected” not to renew their contract. Brad Bourn says both parties share some responsibility.

In any case, they need to negotiate a new contract. The situation at present seems to be that after the Priests had agreed to a tentative proposal by the Park Board staff for a new six-year contract, commissioner Fine introduced an amendment to the proposal that would increase the rent, but lower the amount that Tin Fish is required to invest in the property, and limit the agreement to three years, after which the renewal would be open to competitive bids.

Brad Bourn voted to support the amendment that would increase Tin Fish’s rent, but now says he supports finding middle ground. “Everybody on the board wants them (Tin Fish) to be there,” says Bourn. “This is the vendor we want. Let’s find a set of numbers that we agree on.” 

Some of Tin Fish’s supporters have suggested that raising Tin Fish’s rent is tantamount to punishing them for being successful, or that changing the staff proposal so late in the game is unfair. My view, as a resident of the city, is that when the city lets a private company have exclusive use of our property to operate a business, then it has a duty to its residents to make sure we are getting a good return. 

When the original contract was negotiated nine or 10 years ago, nobody expected that Tin Fish would be nearly as successful as they have turned out to be. According to records provided by the Priests and cited by commissioner Anita Tapp, Tin Fish had $1.1 million in gross revenues last year. Bob Fine, in his email to a constituent, estimates that their profits for their seasonal business are “in the range of $300,000 plus…”

The Priests deserve a lot of credit for what they have accomplished. They run a great business, and are clearly generating a lot more revenue for the city, and for themselves, than the Park Board was able to generate when they operated the concession stand themselves. Giving Tin Fish a new long-term contract seems to be in everybody’s best interests, but it also seems fair to me for the Park Board to raise the rent at least a little, now that the value of the property has increased. 

The issue will be taken up at the next Park Board meeting this Wednesday, March 21 at 5 p.m. at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board offices, 2117 West River Road, Minneapolis, and will be broadcast live on the Minneapolis Government Meeting Channel 79 on Comcast cable and at at http://www.minneapolismn.gov/tv/79.