RESTAURATEUR Chris Lower and architect Ken Howell are feeling a bit more secure about the future of their businesses this week after buying Metro Center from their former landlord, Chesapeake Energy Corp.
Lower, owner of upscale restaurant The Metro Wine Bar and Bistro, and Howell, whose offices and art gallery both are marking a quarter century at 6418 N Western Ave., paid $2.25 million for the property, which was bought by the energy company in 2006 for $1.85 million.
The Metro Center is one of several commercial properties being sold off by Chesapeake following the departure of its founding CEO, Aubrey McClendon, in 2013.
“I'll bet we're one of the few purchasers that paid more than Chesapeake paid,” Lower said. “We paid a premium, but it's worth it.”
Lower opened his restaurant in 1988, in the depths of the oil bust. Three years earlier he had opened up The Coach House across the street in Nichols Hills Plaza.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy,” Lower said. “But they thought I was crazier to start Coach House. When this space became available, I looked across the street and thought either someone is going to open up and compete with me, or I can open up there and compete with myself.”
Down the street, a small energy company started up at the same time as Lower and Howell opened in Metro Center.
For more than 20 years, Lower and his neighbor Howell enjoyed good times at Metro Center, with Lower even catering to some showings at Howell's gallery. That small energy company, Chesapeake Energy, grew into national leader in natural gas production with a workforce hitting 4,000 in Oklahoma City.
McClendon led the company on a buying spree, redeveloping commercial properties along NW 63 and Western. A master plan circulated among area merchants and businesses showed the possibility of tearing up and rebuilding parts of Nichols Hills Plaza and also Metro Center.
Lower and Howell both praise Chesapeake for having been a good landlord that replaced the roof, heating and air conditioning systems on the 47-year-old property.
“It was fun to watch them grow and revitalize the neighborhood,” Lower said. “It's all been good. But it created some uncertainty for us when they bought this building and I knew they had ambitious plans north of 63rd.”
As leases were renewed by Chesapeake, they included a clause that allowed the company to buy out the remainder of the tenants' leases and force them to move with 18 months notice.
When McClendon's departure from Chesapeake was announced and commercial development plans were halted, Lower approached the company about buying Metro Center. He invited Howell to join him.
“We talked when things started happening, that it might be a good opportunity for both of us,” Howell said. “I'd rather build on what we have than move somewhere else.”
Now, Howell admits, he and Lower are free to make changes they always wanted to see as tenants.
Howell is already working on exterior improvement plans with his daughter, a landscape designer.
“Now that we control it, we know the things that will make it better,” Howell said. “We're in a good position in that we're off the street. We can add more trees and plantings. We spiff it up and make it more appealing for everybody.”