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Oh Bento invited to bid as part of public process for Fenlands concession

“It’s apparent that the community has been very happy with the provider and this is not a personal decision. Administration is following a transparent process and policy in terms of how it works.”
Banff Fenlands Rec Centre. RMO file photo

BANFF – Town of Banff administrators say the owners of Oh Bento Banff – who have garnered 850 signatures from residents who want to see the family-run business concession reopen at the Fenlands recreation centre – can bid as part of a public process.

Town of Banff officials say Oh Bento’s lease is up in September – which has prompted a public tender process under rules outlined in the municipality’s property licensing and leasing policy – but no one has bid despite the deadline being extended twice.

Chris Hughes, the director of corporate services for the Town of Banff, said the policy dictates a lease is put out to tender as part of a public process unless there’s an extension clause in the contract, which is not the case for Oh Bento Banff.

“The reason that clause is in the policy is to allow anyone who’s interested in that lease to have a chance to bid for it,” he said.

“We don't want to have a situation where we create a monopoly for that space, which is a publicly funded space within a public facility.”

A subsequent clause in the licensing and leasing policy indicates a tenant wishing to extend the agreement past the expiration date of the existing agreement must request approval of council in writing.

“To my knowledge, they have not done that,” said Hughes.

“It’s apparent that the community has been very happy with the provider and this is not a personal decision. Administration is following a transparent process and policy in terms of how it works.”

In early April, Oh Bento Banff announced it was closing down, posting a message on Facebook to thank the community for support over the years and indicating the municipality’s new conditions for tenancy would be challenging to keep the business viable.

More recently, Oh Bento Banff started a petition calling on the Town of Banff to renew the lease for the Fenlands recreation centre, with approximately 850 signing the petition by the Outlook’s publication deadline.

In an unusual move, the Town of Banff issued a response to the petition on the municipality’s website, which in turn drew a quick comeback from Oh Bento’s owners, who want a lease extension based on the original 2016 conditions.

“First and foremost, this petition aims to extend the lease term without bidding to recover the business opportunities lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Asuka in an update posted on Oh Bento’s website on June 8.

“We believe that over the past seven years, we have operated the concession responsibly and fulfilled our obligations, and the local community recognizes this as well.”

Asuka said the family business was purchased in 2016 for $100,000 with expectations of operating for seven years.

She said she is hopeful a three-year extension will help recoup losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, noting the family needs more time to recover from the financial fallout of the pandemic and make up for the lost business.

“The past two years of the pandemic have led to a devastating decline in our revenue, with a decrease of over 75 per cent,” she said, noting they currently carry a $60,000 debt from the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) program.

“Our financial situation has become increasingly challenging, affecting our ability to meet obligations such as supporting our family life and child education.”

Asuka said it was difficult financially when the business was compelled to participate in Town events for a total of 25 days during the summers of 2018 and 2019.

“However, out of those 25 days, 22 days resulted in a deficit as the expenses exceeded the revenue,” she said.

Hughes said the Town of Banff is looking at potential changes based on the fact that no businesses have bid on the lease, despite extending the deadline twice since the tender was put out in late February.

“We received some feedback that labour was just too difficult,” said Hughes.

Hughes said the new lease is similar to the old one, with a few exceptions, including moving to a fixed fee for rent of $2,600 a month plus an annual inflationary increase, instead of a flat fee plus commission structure.

“The cost itself is very similar to what we have charged historically,” he said.

In addition, Hughes said the Town of Banff moved away from an exclusive service to a right-of-first refusal option.

“Instead of saying you must use the lessee to provide food and beverage service, they have right-of-first refusal – if they don’t want to do it they don’t have to do it,” he said.

Jason Darrah, the director of communications and marketing for the Town of Banff, said the municipality waived all rent payments from the operator from March 2020 to January 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said the Town has regularly received late lease payments and alterations in service over the past two years.

“The Town has encouraged service expansions such as patio service for all the cyclists using the Bow Valley Parkway who park at the Fenlands and expanding liquor licence sales into a section of the arena,” he said.

“The Town granted requests for changes to operating hours and reduced rental rates in 2022 and 2023. The Town has also waived unpaid fees required in the lease agreement, from October 2021 to September 2022, an amount significantly exceeding $10,000.”

Regarding the change in workdays, Asuka said it is only natural to adapt operating hours accordingly in response to game cancellations or changes in tournament schedules.

“We maintained consistent operations from 4:30 to 8 p.m. on weekdays and aligned our weekend operations with the schedule of hockey tournaments,” said Asuka.