Mayor, developer say LBTD approval should open door to big-name eateries

Mar. 16, 2013 @ 09:12 AM

Voters approved another tequila sunrise here, and it could give people the chance to waste away in Margaritaville restaurant and hotel.

The day after voters approved liquor by the drink for a second time with a vote of 952-798, Mayor David Wear said the decision is expected to bring renewed interest from Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, as well having Hard Rock Cafe located on the Parkway in town.

Developers with The Island have said they hoped to bring a Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant to the city. In fact, the restaurant had briefly leased property in Gatlinburg but ended that agreement before the November liquor referendum. Voters appeared to have approved the measure on that occasion, too, but opponents successfully contested the results over poll worker irregularities, forcing Thursday's referendum.

When the contest of election was filed, talk about Margaritaville faded. But Wear said Friday he believes the franchise is back on track for now.

“I know that Margaritaville’s been interested in Pigeon Forge some time now,” he said. “After (Thursday) night, I think things should get back on track and negotiations should continue. “

He said representatives of a Hard Rock restaurant have been talking with a local developer about coming to town. It isn’t clear, he said, whether that would mean the existing Hard Rock in Gatlinburg would close or if there would be two in Sevier County.

“I’ve heard it both ways,” he said.

He said he couldn’t yet name the developer talking to them.

Darby Campbell, one of the partners responsible for the development group working on The Island, acknowledged Friday that negotiations with Margaritaville cooled when the November results were contested.

“They got more serious after November, and then they got less serious again,” he said.

However, he said he doesn’t think a threatened contest of the latest election will stall the negotiations again. Jess Davis, chairman of the anti-liquor campaign group Concerned Churches and Citizens of Pigeon Forge, has said his group will consider filing a contest based on so-called 1 percent voters — people who own as little as 1 percent interest in property in Pigeon Forge, but who are allowed them to vote as nonresident property owners.

Officials have said that’s legal, but Davis has said he believes the transactions are illegal. He did not respond to a request for comments Friday.

Typically a judge has to find that the number of improper votes exceeds the margin of victory. Looking at a margin of 154 votes out of 1,750, and after watching the election take place, Campbell said he’s confident any contest wouldn’t be successful.

“(One percent votes) were only 47 of the votes,’ he said. “We won by 150.”

Asked how he came up with a specific number, he said it was based on depositions from the contest of the November election and data from the election commission.

He doesn’t think there will be any issues with the election, he said. “We feel confident this time around the election was run properly.”

The Margaritaville restaurant had been discussed for some time, but there had been less discussion of a possible hotel. Campbell said the company is looking at an existing, 132-suite facility at The Island.

Potential hotel operators like the plans for The Island, he said, and they also like the proximity to LeConte Center at Pigeon Forge, the city’s event center set to open this year.

While The Island (formerly Belle Island) was moving ahead regardless, getting a well-known name like Margaritaville would be a boost not only in attracting visitors but in getting other tenants to come. Construction of the giant Ferris wheel will also draw attention to the site.

They’ve found tenants for much of the property, Campbell said, including at least one more that was waiting to see whether liquor by the drink passed. He wouldn’t give a name, but said the business would likely feature a brewery.

They will also have a second, smaller Mellow Mushroom restaurant on The Island, he said.

The first phase of The Island, which will feature mostly shops and restaurants, is still set to open this year, he said, while the second is targeted to open in 2014.

— jfarrell@themountainpress.com