In Oakley they Work Today, for Tomorrow they May Dine

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OAKLEY, Utah (AP) -- The Italian marble counter tops are dusty. The walls have holes and must be insulated. Chunks of the mosaic floor tiles need to be replaced.

It looks like a dilapidated train car on stilts, but Keith Walker looks past the smoke-stained ceilings and rusty stools. He envisions a vintage chrome diner, refurbished from top to bottom and serving up the classic blue plate specials with local favorites.

Walker, an Oakley resident, found the classic 1940s Rhode Island diner while searching for a retail establishment he could put on a piece of land he owns on Oakley's main road. The prime piece of property sits next to City Hall the site of the old rodeo grounds, where the city wants to make a Jackson Hole-style boardwalk. The diner, which would also be Oakley's first restaurant, would be the first attraction in a downtown shopping area.

"Other than the rodeo, we really don't have a real good tax base," said Walker, who runs a home theater business in Summit County. "I'm not looking to make a million bucks on it. I just want it to be successful for the town."

The diner was built in 1939, prefabricated in a factory pre-war. It operated as Tommy's Diner in Rhode Island for the past 50 years but had trouble competing with fast-food establishments the same factor that led to the mass diner culture's demise after World War II.

A doughnut shop last year offered Tommy's owners a price they couldn't turn down for their land, so the diner was shut down last September and hauled away to the American Diner Museum as a chain store re-emerged in its place.

The museum put the diner up for sale at $27,000 and waited for a buyer with the right price and story. Walker said he was competing with buyers in two other cities but won the museum over after sharing Oakley's need for an eating establishment and his passion to redo the diner and put it on the National Historic Registry.

"A regular restaurant wouldn't have been unique," Walker said, noting it will be the only such diner in the tri-state area of Idaho, Montana and Utah. "It's a piece of Americana."

Although looking dingy sitting in an empty lot behind City Hall, locals are working to completely renovate the diner.

Lined with green and yellow porcelain and stainless steel, Walker calls it "gorgeous" and loves to talk about the massive project. He estimates the 56-seater diner will cost him $600,000 to $700,000 to refurbish and will open in May or June 2008.

"I could open it up tomorrow, but I really want it to look like it rolled off the factory floor," he said. "It will look brand new, and that's what we want to do. We don't want it to look like a greasy spoon."

It took the diner literally months to get to Utah. It arrived in July after being towed across the country to Oakley, with police escorts in some states.

It's already an attraction for locals. Residents and passers-by frequently stop by to check it out.

Local Romona Stevens stopped in July to see what could be the anchor to Oakley's downtown. Stevens, who Walker refers to as "one of the town's grandmas" he wants to use her homemade bread as a diner pastry item is eager to see the diner's progress because she wants a part in the new downtown.

Stevens bought a piece of property with her husband, Earl, in Oakley in 1979 with an old cabin on it. She wants it to be used as a city museum.

"I feel the cabin is not mine. It's the town's. And I love this town," she said.

Walker plans to get the diner up and running and then sell it for someone else to run. He said he will not hire teenagers as diner staff, but older women who can wear attire a '40s waitress would have worn.

"It's a unique opportunity when you've got a small town with a restaurant that really wants one," he said. "People will want to come because it's unique. It's got a community feel."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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