By Fran Maye
For years, the old Kennett Café on State Street in Kennett Square’s historic district was the scene of brawls and frequent police activity. But when developer Jack McFadden bought the building, he promised an upscale restaurant that would be an asset to the borough.
But that was more than five years ago, and the building still remains vacant.
McFadden has since invested $500,000 into renovations, money he received from a low-interest loan from the state. Still, McFadden said he has no opening date set, though he estimated the work is about 80 percent complete.
McFadden said the reason for the delay is because he wants to see how the state’s plan to privatize the state liquor store system goes. The state House recently approved a bill (House Bill 790) that would put into motion a plan to phase out the state-owned wine and spirits stores, including a provision that requires all state stores to close when the total number statewide becomes less than 100.
The legislation would give existing beer distributors the first chance to purchase 1,200 licenses that will be available to sell wine and liquor. Beer distributors would also be able to offer different packaging options to customers, including six-packs, 12-packs and growlers. After a year, the public would have a chance to purchase these licenses.
But McFadden said there is language in a proposed Senate bill that would give those with a restaurant license, which McFadden has, the ability to sell wine by the bottle or by the case in addition to by the glass. McFadden has changed his plan because of this latest proposed development.
“My whole plan for the property has changed now,” McFadden said, “because instead of making the entire place a restaurant, I will make part a wine bar, and part a Tapas Restaurant to serve the citizens of Kennett Square.”
His previous plan had the second floor for use as a meeting room. Now, he is planning to install a boutique wine store.
“This building was the blight of the town when I bought it,” said McFadden, who estimated he has about $1,4 million invested in the building and property so far. “This was a nuisance bar. It had all kinds of people of ill repute living on the second and third floor. This is my eighth historic property I’ve taken and made into successful restaurants. I’m no amateur at this.”
The improvements so far are limited to the exterior of the building and the entire rear of the building which had to be rebuilt, and to an elaborate enclosed tower fire escape at the rear of the building, something McFadden feels is excessive.
“That fire tower alone cost me $180,000,” McFadden said. “It’s something that is put on 10-story buildings, not on a little building in Kennett Square like this.”
McFadden said he regrets improving the exterior first.
“In hindsight, I made a mistake,” he said. “I should have put all the money into the inside instead of the outside. But I did it to make the town happy so they had something nice to look at instead of some falling down crumbling building.”
Borough officials have been monitoring McFadden’s action closely since he acquired the building, and are frustrated that it sits empty today.
“What we have is a good building that has nothing in it right now,” said Brant Kucera, borough manager. “Whether or not I can force him to open a business, that is not under my control. He used those funds for their intended purpose, and he does have to pay the loan back. If he refuses to pay the loan back, then we are going to have issues, obviously.”
McFadden has acquired the needed extensions and hasn’t begun repayment of the loan yet. But he said he plans to, and he’s doing everything by the book, and all money is accounted for.
“The borough has no skin in the game as far as monetary,” Kucera said. “We would like to see something open there, but he borough is only concerned that he (McFadden) is spending the money correctly and will pay back the loan according to the terms we negotiated with him.”
McFadden said it won’t be long until Kennett Square residents will be enjoying his new restaurant.
“The delays were no fault of my own,” he said. “We’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. This new liquor (privatization proposal) is a godsend to me. But it probably won’t happen for a year.”
The restaurant, Kucera said, will be unique to Kennett Square.
“You will be able to buy bottles of wine retail like at stores in Delaware now, but you can open it and enjoy it at the restaurant,” McFadden said. “A lot of places in town are BYOBs. Here we have a place where people can buy a bottle of wine and enjoy it at a nice restaurant.”
McFadden plans to sell 40 different wines by the glass.
“This is going to happen,” McFadden said. “This will be an anchor of the downtown. I love Kennett Square and I love that building. Quite frankly, I think it’s the nicest building in town and I want to make it into something really, really nice.”
At the moment, when the construction begins again, the first floor with the wine bar and Tapas Restaurant with outdoor dining are priorities. Then it will be to add the boutique wine store when the law is passed.