by Rick Langenberg:
Despite months of often heated debate and legal threats, the first stage of the Woodland Station project has officially broken ground, with local officials conducting a staged ceremony early last week.
Dirt was moved by business owners Gene and Kelly Rodarmel, PCI Builders, Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board members, city officials and other project proponents. With a little luck and help from Mother Nature, the new 25,000 square-foot, $2.5 million Woodland Hardware store, located at the hub of the town’s former Saddle Club, may open its doors by July 2013. It could serve as the initial anchor of a development that will also be accompanied by Family Dollar and O’Reilly Auto Parts stores and possibly a European-style beer garden.
Ironically, last week’s planned Nov. 6 celebration followed a rather spirited debate inside Vectra Bank at the DDA board room, as verbal sparks ignited over project cost over-runs, the development process itself and the signature theme of Woodland Station.
Woodland Park Mayor Dave Turley, in a tone similar to comments he made at a previous council meeting, grilled the DDA board over a lack of communications with the elected officials and not developing realistic cost projections. “We have a major disconnect,” said Turley. “Something has to change.”
Turley cited a big problem with the DDA’s overall development process, when the group was off by about $500,000 in calculating infrastructure expenses for the first stage of Woodland Station. The DDA borrowed an additional $1.3 million to pay for the needed infrastructure for the first phase of its project, but this didn’t come close to covering projected expenses. This resulted in the board opting to delay efforts to provide on-street parking around the Woodland Station development, part of a commitment it made to adjacent businesses.
Moreover, Turley argued that these miscalculations are creating a credibility problem with the business community and with the taxpayers. The mayor maintained that this action should have raised a huge red flag and worries that this could become a familiar trend. “We are digging ourselves in a hole,” blasted the mayor. “You are now the developer. How are we moving forward in a responsible way? The process needs to be reviewed.” “I feel your pain,” responded board chairman Dale Schnitker. “This wasn’t a happy place,” he added, when discussing the atmosphere of a previous meeting, when it learned that it couldn’t afford to foot the bill for the entire infrastructure package.
According to Schnitker and other DDA members, the board did the best job it could in handling the details of the project with the estimates it had. He admitted that the original estimates were made based on partial cost projections for the infrastructure expenses. What could have been done differently?” asked the board chairman. “Do you stop the project?”
Other DDA board members agreed and cited the fact that development-related costs are rising. They also noted that the board has conducted a laundry list of 21-plus meetings regarding this project and other DDA ventures in recent months. “That’s a lot of due diligence,” said board veteran Tom Carrick. “We are not engineers. Nothing was done with intent (to deceive the taxpayers).” Turley sympathized with their plight, but still insisted that the overall process needs to be reviewed and changed.
However, Michael Faber, the owner of Joanie’s Deli and one of the newer board members, took offense to the mayor’s criticism. “I am very troubled by the mayor’s comments today,” said Faber.
He accused Turley of using the council and other public forums as a way to take potshots at the DDA and to generate negative media coverage against the board. Faber said he was disappointed with Turley’s attitude because of all the members of the council, he thought that Turley clearly understood the challenges facing the DDA. “I didn’t know that every time I attended a council meeting, I would be in hostile territory,” said the deli owner. He also told the mayor to quit rehashing the familiar history lessons regarding past woes of the DDA.
Faber said that Schnitker and City Manager Dave Buttery had done “extraordinary work” in keeping the DDA afloat and trying to turn the current Woodland Station project into a viable development. “We are not developers. We are volunteers,” explained Faber.”
He admitted that past projects bids may have fallen through due to funding, but that the group now is committed to doing several projects at this site that may differ from the original concept. “This is the realities we are dealing with. We got to figure out how make this work,” said the DDA board member.
Faber said he didn’t appreciate being blindsided at public forums, especially with a group that invests hundreds of hours of free time on an annual basis. Again, Turley said his main concern is the fact that the initial phase of the project featured a cost over-run of half a million dollars.
On other side of the development coin, Gary Brovetto, the council’s new DDA representative, indicated that the current project lacks a bold theme or image, like an elaborate fountain or palm trees, or having a more signature special event around the Christmas season. He also made a pitch for adding artistic murals at structures adjoining the forthcoming Family Dollar or O’Reilly developments, since this will become a key entrance to town. A few veteran DDA members advised Brovetto to check out previous DDA pursuits. “Believe me, we had some bold plans,” quipped board member Merry Jo Larsen, in partial reference to the group’s $60 million-plus venture that almost resembled a Vail ski village.
New DDA boss Brain Fleer, who also is acting as the city’s economic development director, agreed on the need to develop more of a theme. He believes the DDA and the city need to get on the same page regarding Woodland Station and other projects.
He plans to conduct an all-day retreat to get the group to work more as a team.
Despite last week’s debate, Fleer expressed much optimism about the future of the DDA. “I feel very good about this community,” said Fleer.