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LAS VEGAS -- Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck is about to lose one of the sweetest deals he's ever been handed. The 8 News NOW I-Team has learned that Puck's contract to run a restaurant inside the Springs Preserve is being pulled and a new request for proposal is being written.
Since we first revealed the conditions of the generous deal handed out by the Las Vegas Valley Water District back in July 2009, officials have been looking for a way to bail out, and now they have it.
Multimillionaire chef Wolfgang Puck is a one man conglomerate, with a string of gourmet restaurants, his own product lines for food and kitchen gear, and media appearances but the deal he cut with the water district has to rank as his best ever.
Water officials signed Puck to a 10-year contract, one that basically guaranteed he could not lose. Under the terms of the deal, Puck would run the cafe and catering operation at the Springs Preserve and would give a cut of the profits back to the water district, but only if he surpasses $1 million in sales.
He didn't have to pay for so much as a pot or a pan. Three million public dollars built the restaurant. The public also pays his utility bills, even for cleaning the cafe. If Puck breaks a dish, the public pays to replace it. Plus, in the first year, the preserve paid Puck $600,000.
"Oh no. I don't think you will ever see another deal like Wolfgang got," said Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.
When 8 News NOW first told Commissioner Sisolak about the details of Puck's contract, he was flabbergasted. Sisolak is one of the very few elected officials who's shown a willingness to stand up to the politically powerful water agencies. He has continued to pepper water officials about their cavalier spending habits, Puck being but one example.
"It certainly wasn't in the best interests of the customers of the water district who are subsidizing to this day the Springs Preserve," said Sisolak.
Worse yet, he says, is that the public has also been subsidizing gourmet meals for water agency employees who make up the bulk of Puck's customers. The cafe gives them 15 percent discounts on all meals. The public picks up the difference.
Sisolak confirmed that the Springs Preserve will re-open negotiations to run the cafe. Puck can re-apply but will have competition. Considering the no-risk deal he was given the first time, you'd think rivals would have lined up around the block. Not so, said water boss Pat Mulroy.
"At the time we went out with requests for proposals on that cafe, there were only two respondents," Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the water district told 8 News NOW on July 10, 2009.
They wanted a big name. Puck had one, but not big enough to make the operation profitable. That's not entirely the fault of his salads and pizzas. The entire Springs Preserve has been a disappointment, attracting only one-third of the visitors its backers projected, in part because the economy tanked but also because the preserve didn't do a very good job of marketing the place.
The public has been paying up to $20 million a year to subsidize Springs Preserve and pay down capital costs but there are strong signs of a turnaround. Visitor volume at the preserve is up 19 percent in the past eight months, the budget has been trimmed, and marketing is much more focused.
"I don't think it was ever intended that the water district keeps on subsidizing it for $8, $10, $12 million a year. They've come a long way to bring it down to $6 to $7 million, which is still a big subsidy but a lot less than it was, and it needs to keep going in that direction," said Sisolak.
Even budget hawks agree Springs Preserve is a magnificent asset for the community but critics say that any facility which embodies sustainability and living within ones means should practice what it preaches.
A spokesperson for the water district told us a new request for proposal to run the cafe and catering operation is being written now and could be made public next week. Springs Preserve has an ambitious schedule of events and exhibits, appropriate for the entire family.