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Bel Air Cantina slated to open on North Avenue in Wauwatosa

City grants funds to help effort

July 25, 2012

Bel Air Cantina may soon be celebrating Taco Tuesdays and serving up "Cali-Mexican" cuisine and flights of tequila in the building that last served as the Aqua Terra fish store, 6817 W. North Ave.

The Wauwatosa Economic Development Corp. unanimously voted Tuesday to give owners of Bel Air Cantina $150,000, which will be used toward acquiring the 5,700-square-foot building in East Tosa.

The WEDC has nearly $347,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds to allocate through spring in an effort to spur development and job creation. Bel Air Cantina - which was one of three applicants requesting funding - was named the panel's top priority because it would create at least 25 full-time equivalent jobs, fill a vacant building and only asked for 11 percent of the estimated $1.3 million project cost.

"We've wanted to do something in Wauwatosa for some time," owner Scott Johnson said. "This is a great building on a great strip."

Building up North Ave.

The Mexican restaurant should be a welcome addition to East Tosa. A survey conducted about four years ago as one of the East Tosa Alliance's first activities showed a Mexican restaurant as the No. 1 most-desired business neighboring residents want to see.

The popular restaurant already has a location on Milwaukee's East Side, and Johnson and his business partners also own Balzac, Palomino, Hi-Hat Lounge and Fuel.

"We're taking the model we have - which has been really successful - and duplicating it," Johnson said.

The cantina should bring significant life to the corner and spur further redevelopment throughout East Tosa, WEDC officials said.

"The Bel Air Cantina is going to be the catalyst we've been hoping for," said Alderman Joel Tilleson, who serves on the WEDC.

The lending market remains tight in this economy, so the Bel Air project is putting together funding from five sources, each contingent on the others. If all the pieces continue to fall into place, restaurant owners could close on the building and start significant renovations in August.

The request for block grant funds comes after a $100,000 low-interest loan from the Wauwatosa Revolving Loan Fund Corp. was granted to Bel Air Cantina earlier this week to purchase furniture and equipment for the Tosa restaurant.

Others benefit, too

An existing popular East Tosa restaurant, Il Mito, 6913 W. North Ave., received $60,000 in grant funds to make improvements to the kitchen and bring the facility up to code. Owner Michael Feker said his ultimate goals are to add a patio behind the restaurant that would provide seating for 42 people and expand his catering building.

"We are turning away so much business right now and it's kind of dampening our growth," Feker said.

Plans for the patio were approved in 2009 contingent on bringing the facility up to code.

Century Automatic Services, 802 N. 109th St., received $50,000. The company, which has operated in Tosa since 1974, provides coffee service to offices and gas stations, vending machines, commercial kitchen equipment sales and service and fruit juice distribution to daycare facilities and preschools.

As the manufacturing sector has downsized, the business has changed its focus from vending machines at the workplace and has found opportunity for growth in food service that could create three jobs, owner Peter Papageorge said.

"I've been out on the streets selling, and I can't keep up," he said. "I feel I have an incredible opportunity here to grow."

Feker had asked for $130,000 while Papageorge wanted $199,000. In total, the three requests exceed the grant dollars available by $131,500, so they couldn't all be granted in full.

However, WEDC decided they not only needed to stay within their budget, they wanted to save some funds for future applications.

"If we spend it all today, obviously we have nothing to spend tomorrow. I would like to keep some money in the kitty," WEDC member Alderman Dennis McBride said.

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