City planners draw up alpine-theme ordinance: Ruby Tuesday still plans to build in Gaylord

GAYLORD – “We want to be there and we want to be a good neighbor,” said a spokesman for the Tennessee-based Ruby Tuesday chain about its intentions to open a restaurant in Gaylord.

Keith Wheaton, director of development for Ruby Tuesday, says company architects have come up with a sketch they hope will be appealing to Gaylord planners, who requested that the chain add alpine touches to its building.

“We have done something to the building elevations that would, in our opinion, lend itself to an alpine theme,” Wheaton said.

But that was not the statement he made when he presented a site plan to planning commissioners in January. When Wheaton announced that Ruby Tuesday wanted to build at the intersection of I-75 and Dickerson Road, he said the company wanted to retain its corporate image and didn’t intend to incorporate a Swiss theme, which has defined Gaylord for 40 years.

The site plan request was not approved at the meeting because commissioners needed more information on building elevations. According to city manager Joe Duff, commissioners had expected Wheaton to provide the information at a February planning meeting, but when he didn’t show up, that was reported in an area newspaper.

But Wheaton, who’s working out of a Howell, Mich. office, says he didn’t attend the meeting because he didn’t have any new information to give them.

“I couldn’t go up there with nothing in hand,” he said. “That would have been a futile effort.”

Ruby Tuesday still wants to maintain as much of its corporate image as possible, Wheaton commented, but at the same time “still be sensitive to the alpine issue.”

But as it stands, no one knows exactly what the perimeters are for the alpine motif.

Until this issue came to a full boil over the last couple of months, the planning commission has only suggested to new business owners that they add an alpine flavor to their buildings. Although, as Duff pointed out, “we do make a bold statement at the beginning of our zoning ordinance that the Swiss motif is encouraged for all construction in the community. And we’ve had good success.”

Knowing that the Swiss issue is not going to dissipate anytime soon, Duff has jumped headlong into the debate, drawing up an ordinance defining to what extent the city’s image should be carried out. He was hoping to present the ordinance on March 1 to city planners.

Duff says the DDA board supports a required alpine theme only in the DDA district, which runs roughly west and east from I-75 to the old post office building, and north and south from Norman’s (behind Burger King) to just before Big Buck Brewery.

“I imagine that will be one of the major issues: to determine where, if we’re going to have a district, and if we are, how far do we go with this thing?” said Duff.

In addition to defining a district, the ordinance would set guidelines and criteria and create an architectural review panel responsible for reviewing the conceptual plans of buildings going up in Gaylord. Until this point, the planning commission has been reviewing the plans.

Enacting the ordinance is not a simple process; it needs a thumbs up from the planning commission and the DDA board before even going before the city council for the final vote.

Meanwhile, Duff says he has sent Ruby Tuesday officials some examples of the city’s architecture, a list of architects in the community who are familiar with the alpine theme, and information on utilities.

A little history on Gaylord’s alpine theme:

According to the 1967 Yearbook of Agriculture, Gaylord’s Swiss theme was initiated in 1959 by a group of businessmen who “took a good look at the town and didn’t like what they saw.” Major unemployment was driving younger residents to the cities for jobs and homes, and 15 stores sat vacant on three blocks of Main Street.

“The community was hit by hard times in the early 1960s and they knew they needed to do something,” Duff explained. “So some business people and the Chamber did a survey of merchants and worked with the banks, including Gaylord State Bank president Harold Elgas and Gordon Everett, owner of Star Publications. They felt the alpine theme would be good and give Gaylord an identity, and it really seemed to fit with the skiing that’s prevalent here.”

The merchants were also inspired by the theme adopted by Hidden Valley, a ski resort just east of Gaylord.

The first commercial building with alpine architecture was Schlang’s Bavarian Inn, three miles south of Gaylord by Otsego Lake. When planning their own Bavarian festival weekend in 1965, Leo and Minnie Schlang talked Gaylord merchants into having an alpine festival at the same time.

The response was so good that the Schlangs erected a large tent at their business the following year to handle the overflow crowds from the downtown festival.

To this day, live Polish music pours out from their massive tent during Gaylord’s Alpenfest, held annually in July. BIZNEWS