A group of Little Rock investors, including state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, is seeking to turn the former Packet House restaurant on Cantrell Road into a private club.
Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, and investment bankers Mark Camp and Rod Damon plan to purchase the 12,000-square-foot property at 1404 Cantrell Road for $1.3 million. The deal depends on the group receiving all of the necessary approvals from state and city boards.
Hutchinson said the three have for years discussed the possibility of opening a members-only establishment, and they believe that the nearly 150-year-old house, about 2 miles from the state Capitol and downtown, is ideal for their 1836 Club.
On Thursday afternoon, the Little Rock Planning Commission approved a request to rezone the property from use as a restaurant to use as a private club. Pending approval from the Little Rock Board of Directors and the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, the sale could close within 30-60 days, according to the listing agent with RMP Realty Group.
Hutchinson said the club would include a restaurant that would be open for dinner and special events.
Membership would be limited to 300, and fees would be $250 a month for individuals and $1,000 for companies. The venue would operate similar to how country clubs, the Little Rock Club in the Regions Bank building and Ben's Apartment, a private bar in Fayetteville, operate. People would have to be nominated and approved before they could become members.
"We've been talking about it for years," Hutchinson said. "We started looking at the history of the house and were blown away. We got it at a very fair price," he said of the building.
Marketing material for the property originally listed the purchase price at $1.8 million, which included the tables, restaurant equipment, dishes and decorations.
The property's previous owners did an extensive renovation on the house in 2012, Hutchinson said, and few interior changes are necessary. There are plans to create a humidor room for cigar smoking and to replace carpeting on the third floor with hardwood.
"We don't have to do anything. We could serve dinner there tonight," Hutchinson said.
There are some wrinkles still being worked out. For example, Hutchinson and his partners are looking into how the state Ethics Commission would view it if the club hosted state lawmakers as invited guests. Ethics rules restrict what legislators can accept as gifts.
Even if a legislator paid for his dinner as an invited guest, the membership fee might raise some ethics questions. Hutchinson said he has already discussed the matter with the commission's staff.
"We've given it a lot of thought," he said "I've met with Ethics Commission staff. We're working through how to handle that. It will be done appropriately."
A call to the state Ethics Commission was not returned Thursday.
Also, Dillard's Inc., whose corporate headquarters is next-door, initially expressed some concern about the rezoning request.
The retailer's senior vice president of real estate and finance, Chris B. Johnson, filed a letter with the city on Dec. 24 expressing concern over the use of the property as a private club. Among the concerns in the letter were about parking, drivers leaving under the influence of alcohol and the potential for "illicit activities."
"Dillard has not and will not grant any cross-parking rights to the owners or occupants of the Property, as all of our available parking spaces on both of our adjacent properties are needed for our employees and visitors so that we may conduct our daily business operations. We have experienced issues, during the period of time when the Property was operated as the Packet House Grill, with patrons of the restaurant parking on our properties without our consent, depriving Dillard of its use and enjoyment of its properties."
D̶i̶l̶l̶a̶r̶d̶'̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶f̶i̶c̶i̶a̶l̶s̶ ̶d̶i̶d̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶r̶e̶s̶p̶o̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶a̶ ̶r̶e̶q̶u̶e̶s̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶c̶o̶m̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶
̶p̶r̶o̶j̶e̶c̶t̶ ̶o̶r̶ ̶i̶t̶s̶ ̶o̶b̶j̶e̶c̶t̶i̶o̶n̶s̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶i̶t̶.̶
A Dillard’s Inc. spokesman said Thursday that the company would let that letter to the Little Rock Planning Commission stand as its statement.*
Hutchinson said the partners have talked with Dillard's officials about the plans. He said the limited number of memberships and club bylaws would ensure that the 1836 Club would be a better neighbor than a public restaurant was.
"I don't want to speak for Dillard's, but I think it was a standard objection," Hutchinson said. "We've talked since then. I understand the concerns. It is currently zoned as a restaurant. There is greater risk in that, than in what we're trying to plan."
Business on 01/08/2016
*CORRECTION: Responding to a request for comment, a Dillard’s Inc. spokesman said Thursday that the company would let a Dec. 24 letter to the Little Rock Planning Commission stand as its statement about a plan to make the Packet House the location of a private club. The company’s response was incorrectly described in this story.