The Historic Hotel Congress and five other downtown restaurants will soon be expanding and improving their patios with a little help from the Rio Nuevo Board of Directors, who unanimously voted to invest $350,000 into the area’s restaurant community last month.
The historic hotel will receive the lion’s share of the funding with $300,000 going toward renovating their Copper Hall into a lounge and retail space selling local libations and overhauling their plaza, according to David Slutes, the hotel’s entertainment and marketing director.
“Although all of the details are not set, we hope to have the Copper Hall space become a great lounge, as well as retail space and tasting room featuring borderland mezcals as well as other regional wines and spirits,” Slutes said. “We see this as the physical manifestation of the Agave Heritage Festival, where people can enjoy and purchase traditionally produced spirits that are truly from the region.”
The director said they plan on adding new shading and a misting system to the plaza that should keep their guests cool on the hottest of summer days and outdoor bathrooms. Construction is expected to kick off in early July and Slutes said they hope to debut the first phase of improvements sometime in August.
“This is the first time that the owners have considered asking for help,” Slutes said. “But the positive reactions we have received from the Rio Nuevo Board as well as just about everyone else who has heard about our plans, made the decision to make the request a bit easier.”
Rio Nuevo Board Chair Fletcher McCusker said Hotel Congress originally requested $600,000 for the updates to their property and the board chose to help out in stages as their financial situation improves, but does expect to help finance the full amount.
“We’ve been strapped for cash and we’ve done very little during the pandemic,” McCusker said. “What has surprised us is the number of private sector initiatives coming to downtown from all over the country.”
As a Tax Increment Financial District (TIF), Rio Nuevo receives 100% of its funding from a portion of the state sales tax generated within the district’s boundaries. Before the pandemic, McCusker said the district was receiving approximately $2 million a month, but shortly after restaurants shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions, that number was cut to $400,000.
“Most of our revenue comes from restaurants and retail,” McCusker said. “So to help restaurants survive was not only crucial to their survival, but ultimately for our [Rio Nuevo’s] survival too.”
Rio Nuevo sold a parking lot located at Council Street and Church Avenue for $750,000 to help provide their latest round of funding to downtown restaurants, according to McCusker.
The remaining $50,000 will split into five $10,000 stipends which will assist five downtown restaurants with expanding and/or updating their patios. So far, six businesses including Penca, Senae Thai, Owl’s Club, 47 Scott, Hub, Elliot’s on Congress and Empire Pizza have applied for the grant, but the board has yet to announce the recipients at this time.