Surprise and disappointment not a way to develop land

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By The Staff

It was not surprising that Los Alamos County Council decided this week to discontinue their exclusive arrangement with the Boyer Company of Salt Lake City for the development of a retail center at Trinity Place.

What was surprising is how little we still know about why the arrangement failed.

In its determination at long last to move forward, the council swept many pieces of the puzzle off the table.

The Trinity Site Redevelopment Project is clearly the most complicated of a number of projects the Los Alamos County government has adopted in the flush of a windfall of new tax revenues from a change of status of Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2006. In 2007, the county passed ordinance 529, with advertising help from Boyer Co., to issue gross receipts tax improvement revenue bonds for up to $75 million, with $50 million for the Trinity Site project.

We know the macroeconomics of the ensuing debacle, the recessionary sandbag that came down on capital projects everywhere. But, as the councilors pointed out, that was after more than two years of dilatory negotiations and another year in which the company seemed to downplay the credit crunch problem.

In the meantime, years have been virtually wasted, although necessarily some lessons have been learned, as well. Some of the pro forma material for evaluating financials will come in handy in the catch-up rounds to come.

Boyer’s representative, Wade Williams, acknowledged at an

Aug. 13 meeting of the council that things were not going well after three-and-a-half years.

“We need to roll up our sleeves and work together to see if we can come up with a plan.” he said. “If not, we’ll step aside. We’ve not performed. We’re disappointed.”

Williams may have thought the agreement was about to end then. But no, the company was given yet another chance.

And they came up with a new proposition that some considered a ploy. This time there was finally a signed letter of intent with a potential anchor, an instrument that impressed Councilor Vincent Chiravalle, who was not convinced that anything better could be obtained, but nobody else on the council or the advisory committee was swayed.

Councilor Nona Bowman expressed the majority view when she said, “The only purpose of the letter is to extend the exclusive relationship.”

There was plenty of disappointment to go around Monday night, as the council finally lowered the boom and asked the poorly performing developer to step aside.

The overwhelming majority of the council was disappointed in Boyer; Chiravalle and Williams were disappointed in the council.

What was most surprising, with 20-20 hindsight, was that with so much disappointment to go around, nobody asked the real question:

Why, as we can plainly see now with 20-20 hindsight, were three years wasted on a bad deal that failed?

The one person who fell off the Boyer party boat earlier than the others was George Chandler, who broke with the advisory committee at the

Aug. 13 meeting and urged the council to sever ties with the developer and start over or go it alone.

“I was just a little less patient with them than some of the others,” he said. “It felt like good faith negotiations, but Boyer was waiting for the county to put more and more into the deal.”

But in the last few months a warning bell went off, when he learned that Williams used to work for Smith’s Food and Drug and had committed to give Smith’s preference on any development project.

The potential conflict of interest came to light at the same time that Smith’s purchase of the Mari-Mac shopping center was revealed. Smith’s aggressive move raised questions not only about its likelihood as an anchor tenant for Trinity Place, but also raised doubts about how more retail diversity could be fostered if Smith’s became even more dominant in the market.

“I think we were snookered,” Chandler said, who does not fault the county or the council for the outcome.

“They bobbed and weaved and did the rope-a-dope,” Council Vice Chair  Mike Wismer said. “I was born two days ago, but not yesterday. The sad part is I was a big supporter of Boyer.”

The idea was to solve a long-standing problem on the Hill, having to do with the scarcity of retail options in an affluent community. The problem remains and council, like a hiker lost in the woods, has returned to the fundamentals of their original intentions to get reoriented.

Let’s hope when they get started again that the new direction is the right one this time.