Developer tosses plans for downtown bar

Suresh Mekala, the Chicago-area businessman who hoped to buy the former Le Bistro restaurant so he could start a sports bar, has abandoned the plan after three banks rejected his application for a loan.

Both Mekala and Le Bistro building owner Jim Focht say the rejections are questionable.

“I’m a little confused,” said Mekala, who initially planned to put the sports bar in the former Triangle Building, which he owns and which he may still try to remodel for apartments. “The banks didn’t give me a reason.”

There is “some strong force” bent on discouraging Mekala, he said.

Mayor Bill Schirf, Altoona Blair County Development Corp. Executive Vice President Patrick Miller and Planning Director Lee Slusser said they supported Mekala’s efforts.

There are no permit obstacles to Mekala’s proposal, Slusser said.

ABCD can’t participate in a project like Mekala’s unless a commercial lender takes the lead, Miller said.

“We tried to do everything we could to help him,” Schirf said, adding that he finds it hard to believe there’s anything “fishy” about denials from three different banks. “It just didn’t work out,” he said.

The two banks contacted by the Mirror didn’t comment on the loan rejections.

Focht – whose sons closed Le Bistro on his advice not because it was unsuccessful, but because they obtained secure, benefit-rich jobs on the railroad – said he doesn’t know what the problem could have been.

Focht said he doesn’t blame ABCD or the city.

“There’s something much deeper here,” however, he said.

Mekala, who said he would have put $200,000 of his own money down, was hoping for a $150,000 loan from ABCD and needed only $175,000 from a bank to buy the property for $375,000, Focht said.

Mekala’s credit rating is high, the cash flow on his other businesses is good, he was investing a high percentage of his own money – including funds he’d put into the Triangle Building – and he was willing to give his personal guarantee, Focht said.

“It’s not like these guys came to town with their hands out,” he said.

Moreover, city and economic development officials have been pushing for development downtown, including restaurants, to help attract new residents, Focht said.

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Somebody doesn’t like him or me.”

Reportedly, a bank official said Mekala’s business plan was too optimistic, Focht said.

But Focht disagreed.

Le Bistro has 8,000 square feet of inside space with the capacity for 90 seats in front, 70 in back – plus an outdoor patio with capacity for 42 seats, he said.

Mekala’s projection of $41,000 in gross sales a month – $5.13 per square foot – is “very low,” he said.

The business plan projected the average customer expenditure of between $10 and $20.

It spoke of neighborhood marketing, a loyalty program, “international creative” food and a “full array” of mixed drinks, wine and beer, menu changes every three or four months, regular “themes” and special events, plus “wine-tasting evenings” and live entertainment on weekends.

There was some suggestion that a presumed absentee owner like Mekala “makes everybody nervous,” Focht said.

“But how many people have businesses in Altoona that don’t live here?” he asked rhetorically.

Mekala said that he has until December to begin work on the bar, before he would need to reapply to the Liquor Control Board to use the license he purchased almost a year ago.

He suggested there’s little chance of reviving his original idea of placing the bar at the Triangle.

He hasn’t quite given up on pursuing another part of that initial idea – creating housing at that older building.

But there were previous obstacles – among them the city’s failure to approve one-time licenses for non-city-registered plumbers and electricians to work there, he said.

“Is it worth my time [to try again]?” he asked rhetorically. “I know they will reject it.”

Previously, Slusser disputed Mekala’s characterization of the city as uncooperative.

“We rolled out the red carpet for him,” Slusser said then.

At one point, a Morrisons Cove electrician hired by Mekala applied for a one-time permit, but lacked the necessary master’s license issued by another municipality, a city employee said previously.

That electrician at that time

didn’t follow up on the opportunity to take a test to qualify as a master, which would have allowed him to do the job, the city employee said then.

Still, the city gave permission for Mekala’s own crew to do basic construction on the Triangle, and permits for heating, ventilation and air conditioning could have been picked up by any contractor registered with the city – with no competency requirements, the employee said.

“Unfortunately, the project is just not coming together,” Miller told the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp. board last week, in reference to the Le Bistro.

Mekala deserved better, according to Focht.

“Every door is closed,” Mekala said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.