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The long-awaited Trinity Site retail development became one step closer to fruition Tuesday night as the Los Alamos County Council gave the green light for county officials to begin negotiations with North American Development Group.
The council’s unanimous vote to move forward with NADG was the culmination of a months-long review process of prospective developers that was accomplished by the Trinity Site Revitalization Project Advisory Committee (TSRPAC). The advancement of the Trinity Site retail project is designed not only to generate revenue for the cash-strapped school district, but it’s also expected to kick start a revitalization of the town’s retail landscape.
TSRPAC members explained to the council how NADG emerged as the top contender to tackle Trinity Site from a pack of at least half a dozen serious contenders for the plum project. Various members of the committee told councilors that NADG won out based on the company’s background, experience and financial ability to get the deal done without public funds.
Applause erupted from the audience when the council unanimously approved NADG. The council then directed staff to begin immediate negotiations with the developer and to return with a negotiated lease and development agreement for its consideration.
Revitalizing the Trinity Site is an objective for the county that’s been in the works for 17 years. Progress on the project went through several starts and stops. Most recently, the council entered an agreement with Boyer Company, a developer based in Utah, ultimately terminating that relationship in September 2009.
Recently, the county joined forces with Los Alamos Public Schools on the project to not only bring more retail and entertainment opportunities to the county but also provide the school district with a portion of the ground lease revenue.
Also, to help ensure success this time around, the county formed a 15-member advisory committee to review and recommend a new developer to County Administrator Tony Mortillaro. Mortillaro presented the committee’s recommendation to council for its consideration at Tuesday’s meeting.
With the help of county staff and consultants from Jones Lang LaSalle, the committee used a list of criteria to select the developer, committee member Bill Enloe said as part of the committee’s presentation to council.
The criteria included:
• Project feasibility
• capacity and capability of the developer
• time table to get the project completed
• past performances
• project design
• tenant commitment
• proposed tenant mix and product compatibility
• compatibility to the county’s comprehensive plan
• minimizing the cost to the county
• financial return to Los Alamos Public Schools and the county
In addition to meeting these criteria, NADG stood out because they secured a commitment from the Kroger Company, the parent company of Smith’s Food and Drug Centers, to construct a Smith’s Market Place as the project’s anchor store and NADG has the financially stability to complete the project, Enloe said.
He described the developer as a “very impressive team,” and said, “They’re committed to create a unique development.”
Committee member Lynn Ovaska added that NADG is using a smart approach, has the private funds for the project and can attract retail tenants to the site.
She emphasized the issue of trust in the council’s decision. “I would let you know we were unanimous in our decision…and I want you to trust us,” Ovaska said of TSRPAC’s work in the review process.
Jonathan Gesuale, NADG lead manager for the Trinity Project, said, “We believe in the community and we believe in what’s here.” He said NADG will practice openness, transparency in the project and encourage public involvement.
Steven Sorensen, vice president of corporate development for Smith’s said ever since the grocery chain took a lease for the location in the Mari Mac Center it has looked to expand or build a new store. Because of complications with the structure of the lease at Mari Mac, Smith’s began efforts to buy the center. After pursuing it for six years, the former owner did agree to sell two years ago, he said.
However, Sorensen told the council that investing in major improvements to the existing store was put on hold because of the potential for something to happen with the Trinity Site.
Due to its convenience and location to the residents, the Smith’s Food and Drug in White Rock will remain open, Sorensen said.
During public comment prior to the council’s vote, Pet Pangaea owner Cindy Wells said she was happy to hear that NADG is willing to work with existing businesses and not “cannibalize” them.
Wells also said that one of the biggest issues she faces is lack of quality space.
“There really isn’t land for people like me to build on,” she said, adding that it’s frustrating to hear that one piece of land is going to a big developer.
Local resident Carl Thornton described Smith’s as being like the cream that rises to the top of the milk. Smith’s rises to the top in comparison to other grocery chains, he said.
Local resident Chris Chandler urged councilors to consider the cohesiveness of the downtown. The Trinity Site may be part of the downtown comprehensive plan but in reality, it’s a stretch due to the street’s lack of pedestrian-friendly elements and unappealing aesthetics, she said.
Several councilors said they are eager to make some progress on this project.
“We need to act on a time scale of weeks rather than months,” Councilor Vincent Chiravalle said.
Councilor Nona Bowman said after spending years on this project, there is another chance now to make the Trinity Site a reality, saying she hopes to be at the ribbon cutting in a year.
Despite agreeing with the committee’s selection of the developer, Councilor Robert Gibson voiced concerns about the project. Five years ago the Trinity Site was the county’s only land option for economic development but today there are other options, he said, adding that those alternatives have not been explored. The project seemed to call for downtown sprawl and Gibson wondered what the cost would be to taxpayers to revitalize the Mari Mac Shopping Center.
Sorensen said that while a firm plan for the future of Mari Mac has yet to be formulated, he is confident that in working with the community, NADG and others, a solid plan for the future of Mari Mac can be brought to the table.