Restaurateur Warren Butler is suing the city again — only this time he’s suing for peace.
Mr. Butler spent years trying to convince the city of Santa Barbara to reassign a lease granted to the High Sierra Grill, where he worked as manager, to his own Flightline Restaurant and Lounge, located at Santa Barbara Airport where the Elephant Bar once stood. It didn’t happen. Instead, High Sierra Grill ended up closing in 2019.
Thwarted in his quest for a lease of his own, Mr. Butler spent years in court trying to get a lawsuit he filed against the city for damages in front of a jury.
That didn’t happen, either. Instead, both sides agreed to settle the case last month for a $225,000 payout by the city.
Now Mr. Butler says he just wants to get along and fight alongside his former adversaries to bring State Street back to its former glory.
“The vitality of State Street is indeed a priority of the utmost urgency,” he told the News-Press. “And it must be restored through a new commitment by the current governing administration and locals coming together.
“I include myself in this, as well as those interested in investing in exciting new establishments that serve our wonderful community and, very importantly, and perhaps most significantly, the irreplaceable support and strategic engagement from the city, Chamber of Commerce, and Downtown (Santa Barbara) Organization. An iron triangle, if you will, that will include downtown property owners, merchants, the city and our nonprofit partners in the advocacy sector, should be created and empowered post haste.”
Despite his new spirit of cooperation, however, Mr. Butler wasn’t quite ready to let bygones be bygones, at least not until he got a few more things off his chest about the way he says he was treated by city officials who declined to reassign him the lease, crushing his dream of opening Flightline.
“As some might know or recall, Flightline was going to be an aviation-themed restaurant on the physical grounds of the Santa Barbara Airport,” he said. “I had initially secured strong support and encouragement for this idea from the city’s governing administration. However, quite unfortunately, that support from the city eroded over time and precipitously to the point that the city was not going to honor the law and regulations that were in force, which resulted in our differences becoming irreconcilable, forcing a lengthy and costly lawsuit.
“The city’s ill-thought actions illustrated that administration’s disregard for nourishing local businesses and employees as well as the opportunity for the city to earn rewarding tax income, (and) taking a blight on the landscape and turning it into a wonderful, entertaining museum that serves delicious food within an engaging atmosphere that honors the history of not only the innovation of aviation but the brave, talented pilots from Santa Barbra who risked or gave their lives to keep us free. An absolutely fun, colorful and exciting location for the whole family to come and enjoy their tasty meals at a very reasonable price that engages kids on the history of their environment.
“That lawsuit was recently settled … not for what it should have been settled for, except that under the circumstances, I felt compelled to accept a settlement and move on to my next business adventure.”
According to his attorney, A. Barry Cappello, “Mr. Butler has gone on to do two more great restaurants, taking over management at Chase Restaurant and opening Courthouse Tavern.”
Now Mr. Butler wants to get involved in restoring State Street to its former greatness as a “historic and majestic corridor,” but not without first blasting its current state as a thoroughfare with “many empty stores,” a “downtrodden vestibule of the homeless and challenged,” claims made previously by some downtown restaurateurs, retailers and landlords.
“One issue most discussed, perhaps more than any other issue when it comes to our city, is the current ‘state’ of State Street,” Mr. Butler said. “Most would agree that State Street is a historic and majestic corridor — past and currently home to more fantastic restaurants and shops and other commercial venues than I can list in this limited space.
“Suffice it to say that for those working in the hospitality industry or the visitor-serving sector, having a vibrant and dynamic commercial vibe up and down State Street — from Cabrillo to Mission Street — and beyond, is a vital goal.
“The current economic condition of our downtown isn’t acceptable for many, myself included. In fact, the many empty stores reflect an apparent lack of support, commitment and effort on the part of the past administration to revitalize what was once a regal and engaging commercial corridor to what is now, except for a few bright spots, a downtrodden vestibule of the homeless and challenged.
“The once bright light of Santa Barbara’s State Street is now at its lowest, barely dim.”
Despite his disappointment and frustration at not being able to bring his Flightline Restaurant dream to fruition, Mr. Butler said he remains “willing and eager to work with our city’s leaders and the administration to recreate a soaring spirit of free enterprise in Santa Barbara.”
The city has many advantages over other cities its size, he said.
“Our weather alone makes us a world-class destination. Our natural scenery and beauty allow us to capture the imaginations of travelers throughout the world. Our proximity to Los Angeles, the wine country to our immediate north, and of course our spectacular ocean, beaches, parks, museums, and even our system of hiking trails are second to none.
“So then, why don’t we realize our full potential? Why are we seeing stores go out of business and ‘for lease’ signs go up as often as signs for yard sales? The answer: past leadership failures. It really isn’t more complicated than that. And I say this not to indict anyone more than I’m indicting myself. This is what I do; after all, this is what I love to do.
“And yet I have not succeeded these past few years in fulfilling my full dream of improving our city one successful business and restaurant at a time. I get it. Our society today is most complex. So many issues pull us and local government in a thousand different directions, from the cost of living to keeping our families safe and healthy, managing the competing challenges of work, kids and paying attention to civic affairs. Even dealing with the implacable issues such as homelessness and crime can drain substantial resources. All of these real-life concerns are constantly pushing and pulling at us.”
Restoring the economic vitality of Santa Barbara’s downtown is only one issue among many, he said.
“Having said that, I believe unequivocally everything I’ve said here is true. I also believe with every fiber of my being that a thriving downtown retail and commercial area, one that meets the high standards of the people of Santa Barbara, will help transform the overall quality of life in ways that are immeasurable. The multipliers, not financial multipliers, but economic multipliers, would be tremendous and beget other great and tremendous things, each of which would beget still more.
“This is the power of success, and it is how success breeds more success. And the more successful we are as a city and civil community, the better and hopefully more purpose driven our lives can be.
“I have no enmity in my heart for anyone due to the lawsuit or the circumstances leading up to it,” he said. “Instead, I am standing by, ready and willing to work with everyone and anyone to help change the negative trends we are witnessing on State Street. You have my promise and commitment to do exactly that until I have nothing left in me to give.”