More than a year after Ubet Casino in Longview closed, former owner Regina Bakunowicz says she’s close to opening a new Italian restaurant and card room along the Cowlitz River.
In 2017, Bakunowicz made plans to open “Regina’s on The Water” at the property of Elite Fitness (also formerly Charlie’s Restaurant) at 1826 First Ave. on the river side of the dike along the Cowlitz River.
She’s surmounted many obstacles to getting the business up and running, and she still has a few, including getting a new gambling license.
Ubet was the latest of several names of the Commerce Avenue casino, which originally opened in the late 1990s and which constantly struggled. And Regina’s on the Water must compete, somewhat, with the two-year-old Ilani casino in La Center.
But Bakunowicz has faith that her new business will succeed, despite the hurdles and the shuttering of Ubet two years ago. For one, the riverfront property screams “location, location, location,” she said.
“I am very experienced in the food and beverage and in the gaming industry,” Bakunowicz said. “I have good backing behind me. I have a good team. I have a couple of really great chefs. ... I know that it’s going to be very successful, and we need that in this town.”
Longview City Attorney James McNamara said that Bakunowicz’s more than $200,000 in unpaid gambling taxes from the Ubet location were discharged when she filed for bankruptcy. There were no assets left to pay her debt against the city, he said.
Bakunowicz said that after her companies filed for bankruptcy and had their assets liquidated, the tax and debt liabilities were wiped clean. Regardless, city officials have said they would not withhold a building permit from Bakunowicz over any owed gambling taxes because the two issues are separate.
The City of Longview changed zoning laws in the Riverfront District in December 2018 to allow card rooms, and in May 2018 approved her submitted plans for the restaurant. She has submitted plans for the card room, is working on bringing the building up to new city codes and renovating it to once more work as a restaurant.
She intends to hire at least 100 employees for the full service restaurant, and set up an outdoor seating area overlooking the river to host reunions, wedding parties and outdoor sports in the summer.
She’d like to put in a gelato machine, hire a piano player for the weekends, extend an exterior deck and create a banquet space for up to 80 people.
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The card room alone will have 10 tables, she said, for games like Blackjack, Spanish 21, Blazing 7s and three-card poker. By the time all her work on the restaurant is done, she said she’ll have likely invested $300,000 or $400,000. (Two investors, including her brother, are helping her fund the renovations, Bakunowicz said.)
“It’s going to be an absolute beautiful restaurant,” she said.
But a few obstacles remain before those plans materialize. The current hold up, she said, is confirmation from the U.S. Army Corps on whether or not she can drill underneath the building to install a new fire suppression sprinkler system. The restaurant lies alongside a waterway, so the corp’s approval is needed, Bakunowicz said. And she can’t put in the floors until she confirms the sprinkler set up.
Longview Community Development Director John Brickey confirmed that the fire sprinkler system “is the primary hurdle” left for the restaurant, and said the corps is likely close to making a decision. In as early as two to five weeks, Bakunowicz could have her permits all in order and receive the go ahead to make any final improvements to the building, he said.
Once she gets a response from the Corps, either ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ Bakunowicz said she can finish getting the place up and running, which she said would take about three months.
And the corps’ decision will let Bakunowicz address another obstacle: Getting her new gambling license.
Bakunowicz has sent in her gambling license application, but said she won’t receive it until the kitchen and bar are set up. Per the Washington State Gambling Commission, businesses must have a valid liquor license and be able to show that the gambling “would be a commercial stimulant to on-premises food and/or drink sales.” Receiving the liquor license requires that she have the bar ready to go as well, she said.
“Everything hinges on one thing first: You have to have a kitchen and a liquor license,” Bakunowicz said. “The card room is an enhancement to the food and liquor license. ... The card room would come after that.”
Bakunowicz’s gambling license for UBet became void when she lost the building as part of a complex court case in 2017, but “all of those actions have been settled as far as from the past location,” Bakunowicz said.
Ultimately, Bakunowicz said, the city has been “very good” to her, and she’s had plenty of inquiries about when she’ll open, especially from lawyers down the street at the Hall of Justice.
“I look forward to being a partner with the city, and ... keeping (people) living, eating and playing in this community.”