Interesting item on the agenda of the Little Rock Planning Commission Thursday — a proposal to convert the currently vacant Packet House into a private club for business people.
The developer is Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson. He’s joined in an LLC with two friends who are investment bankers, Mark Camp and Rod Damon.
They want to make the building, most recently a restaurant, into the 1836 Club, a place for business people to meet, eat, drink and smoke cigars in a humidor room. Most major cities have such private clubs. The club also would be used as an events center for catered events. When the proposal was reviewed by the subdivision committee, it was noted the facility would be similar to the Little Rock Club atop Regions Bank.
Hutchinson and partners have a deal pending to buy the property for $1.3 million from the previous owners, who did a major renovation for a restaurant that didn’t work out.
Here’s the full application before the Planning Commission. The staff has recommended the change to a private club from restaurant approval. Dillard’s, which has headquarters next door on Cantrell Road, wrote a letter expressing concerns about traffic and potential for members to use their parking lot, but Hutrchinson said he didn’t expect the company to actively oppose the application. He said the operation would likely have less traffic than a commercial restaurant, with essentially the same operation.
Hutchinson said the club would be limited to 300 members. It would include a restaurant, serving dinner only and special events. The group is seeking an established restaurateur to operate the dining facility independently. The club operators would meet expenses from membership fees ($250 a month for individuals and $1,000 for corporations), the bar operation and events.
Hutchinson was ready for my question about the nexus of politics and entertainment, with the Capitol dome visible from the restaurant. He’s been talking to Graham Sloan, director of the state Ethics Commission, about the knotty issue of entertaining legislators. Actually, it’s not so knotty. They can’t be wined and dine by lobbyists. The larger question is whether they can pay their own tabs as a guest without still being seen as having been conferred a benefit of admission to a private club. That could mean an additional charge. The matter is up in the air for now.
The club also could be a place for “scheduled events,” the end-run around the new ethics law by which special interest may entertain legislators if all members of a committee or the legislative chambers are invited to an event. Lobbies have already used catering venues for such events in the past.
Hutchinson envisions a venue that pays tribute to the building’s past as a fixture on Carpetbagger Row, once a larger group of homes built by Little Rock’s reconstruction-era leaders. They hope to hang a portrait of Alexander McDonald, the carpetbagger who built the house in 1869.
Hutchinson said a deal had been struck to purchase the property for $1.3 million, but it is contingent on approval of all the relevant agencies. Planning Commission decisions are reviewed by the City Board. The club also will need a private club permit from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Hutchinson said the potential buyers have no objections to the city’s long-standing desire to continue the River Trial bike path along the bluff of the river behind the Packet House and behind Dillard headquarters. Dillard’s objects to having the path behind its buildings, but might be amenable to a broader bike path along Cantrell Road in front of its building.
UPDATE: On Thursday the Planning Commission approved the plan.