LIFT frustrated with city council over city mall

(contributed by Greg Burt)

Longmont Investing For Tomorrow (LIFT) is touting the success of its first major event held last month to encourage Longmont city leaders to form a public/private partnership to redevelop Longmont’s Twin Peaks Mall. Over two-hundred people attended the Economic Summit initiated and largely financed by LIFT in partnership with the Longmont Area Chamber of Commerce.

The summit, held at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center in Longmont, brought together a panel of redevelopment experts and senior Longmont city staff. The discussion, and the question and answer period at the end, centered on the city’s declining tax revenues and the need for the city council to join forces with the mall’s owner, Panattoni Development Company, to prevent further deterioration of the retail outlet.

LIFT is frustrated with city council for dragging feet
LIFT Board Chairman Rick Samson and board member Forrest Flemming proposed the Economic Summit to the Longmont Chamber last year because of LIFT’s frustration with the city council members’ apparent lack of urgency regarding a once successful retail hub. “Members of the current city council are dragging their feet on redeveloping the mall,” said Samson. “Longmont’s mall has been a great source of sales tax revenue for the city in years past. The city’s general fund has lost $1.5 million in sales tax revenue from the mall in the past two years. Forward thinking communities all around Longmont are forming public/private partnerships to develop or redevelop their malls. Our mall desperately needs help as does our general fund, but four members of our city council are stalling or outright opposing the process.”

The chairman of the Longmont Chamber public policy committee, Alex Sammoury had similar sentiments. “There is a lot of potential for the redevelopment of the mall,” Sammoury said. “But the process through the city has been long and painful, not only for the developer Panattoni, but to the city staff and the community in general.” There has been talk about a partnership from the city council, he said, but so far nothing has happened.

City council uses tactics to stall redevelopment
Panattoni Development Company’s Senior Vice President Will Damrath also attended the summit. Late last summer talks between Damrath and the city council broke off after the two sides failed to agree on a public financing plan to help with the mall’s redevelopment. Since then, according to Samson, the city council has employed various tactics to stall the redevelopment. First, the council hired its own consultant, Citi Venture Associates, in October and conducted a two-day workshop to gather community input and to conceptualize what a complete mall redevelopment could look like. Although Damrath was a participant, he did not believe the mixed-use concept that emerged from the workshop was financially viable anytime in the near future.

Then recently the council decided to expand the urban renewal district planned for the mall site to include 175 additional acres surrounding the mall property, which delayed a possible partnership agreement even further.

Developer has plans to build a new movie theater soon
During the question and answer period at the Economic Summit, Damrath announced his plans to bring the first stages of a mall redevelopment project to the city within the next few months. In an interview afterward, Damrath explained in the short term, he has decided public financing is not necessary to build a pared-down, first-phase of the project, which includes a redesigned movie theater. “For the long term, future build-out to materialize, it is likely that city participation and council action will be required,” Damrath said. “However, the roll-out of the first phase may not need anything but expedited approvals and fee waivers.”

According to Longmont’s Director of Community Development Phil DelVecchio, getting the city to approve a mall redevelopment plan without a request for public financing could take as little as one to two months. But that all depends on whether city staff determine the changes to the mall sight plan as major or minor. While minor changes only require staff approval, a major change would need the approval of the Longmont Planning and Zoning Commission, which could extend the approval period for up to four months. The city council only needs to get involved if Damrath requests city financing for the project, DelVecchio explained.

LIFT concerned about micro-managing
According to Samson, LIFT’s concern is that there may be attempts by some members of council to micro-manage the project, take the authority away from the city staff, and thereby prolong the entire development process.

DelVecchio, also a panel speaker at the Economic Summit, publically assured the event audience of the city’s commitment to the mall’s redevelopment. “The city stands ready and willing to work with the developer towards redeveloping the mall,” he said.

Samson was encouraged by this statement, even if it seems to contradict the voting record and public statements of four Longmont city council members: Karen Benker, Sarah Levinson, Brian Hansen, and Sean McCoy. “Whether or not that is the position of the city council, I don’t know. But their public person (DelVecchio) said it was.”

Samson hopes summit spurs city council to action
Samson not only hopes the summit spurs the city council to treat the mall redevelopment with increased urgency, but he hopes the summit impacts the city council elections this November. “We now have fleshed out some issues for some of the council candidates,” Samson said, expressing his hope that candidates use the facts presented at the summit to expose the council members responsible for stalling the mall’s redevelopment.

LIFT initiated the summit and paid for two of the panel of speakers Marilee Utter with Citi Venture, and Arne Ray with Ray Real Estate Services. The summit also had other financial supporters including the Longmont Daily Times-Call, Panattoni Development Company, Radisson Hotel and Conference Center, and Workforce Boulder County. The Longmont Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the summit and provided staff time to take care of the conference details.

Longmont’s Mall theater solution: Netflix!


Contrary to what some, or even many, people may think, I don’t go out of my way to try to make some members of Longmont City Council look bad. They usually do it all by themselves. Problem is, most people in this city have no idea what kinds of things come out of their mouths, and if they did they would occasionally be appalled – or at least entertained.

On Saturday May 2nd, three councilmembers (Karen Benker, Sarah Levison, and Brian Hansen) hosted a town meeting along with members of city staff. The hottest topic that took up most of the meeting was the Twin Peaks Mall. Whenever the mall is a topic in the Times-Call, the comments from citizens are many, long, and heated. For the most part, people want something done with this failing piece of property. And yesterday.

Who needs theaters when you have Netflix?
Many of the comments by the above councilmembers were quite revealing. The most ridiculous has to go to Mr. Hansen. Most people in the city seem to be in favor of a new theater, the old one has lousy seating, along with sub-par picture and sound quality. It’s ugly and people go elsewhere, plain and simple. When asked about this theater situation, Mr. Hansen said that no one is going to theaters anymore, and a viable alternative is to stay at home and rent from Netflix.

Now, I love Netflix, use it constantly, both streaming and by mail. But how many of you relish the idea of sitting around the glow of your TV (and the warmth of your mercury-laden CFL bulbs) and staying home to watch movies? Keep in mind Netflix doesn’t have movies when they first come out, so you have to wait a bit for that new picture you want to see. Mr. Hansen also used the excuse of getting the flu or cold in theaters, which is possible anywhere you have actual interaction with live human beings. Who needs that, right?

It’s tough being green
Then the point of driving to the theater came up and how he can just walk down to the mailbox and drop off his DVD. This is not very eco-friendly when you take into account everything involved with multiple vehicles in the US Postal system getting that DVD to and from your mailbox. It’s a much smaller carbon footprint to drive a mile, or even several miles, to a theater. Or walk, or ride your bike, or take a bus – just about anything.

Then there’s the “benefit to the city” issue: What sales/use tax does Netflix bring to the City of Longmont? I’d guess ZERO. And Mr. Hansen is endorsing a service that competes directly with companies around town that rent or sell DVD’s who actually do bring revenues into the city.

His excuse was the improvements in flat panels and home theaters, and that the sound they offer is about as good as you’re going to get at a theater. How many of you would agree with that? It may be better than what Twin Peaks Mall theater has NOW, but not in a new stadium seating, Dolby Digital theater, which is about the bare minimum now in new theaters surrounding, but not in, Longmont.

How do you really feel?
But it wasn’t just the theater with Mr. Hansen. He said more than once he isn’t against the mall redevelopment, yet he has consistently spoken and voted against it. There is a contingent here in Longmont, and they always side with Mr. Hansen and the “Benker-wing” of city council, who have made it clear it’s just fine with them if the land where the mall now sits became one big Open Space with prairie dogs as far as the eye can see. It’s my opinion that Mr. Hansen’s above comments reveal his true feelings about the mall: let it fail, let it be bulldozed, let it be “returned to its natural state” (my term).

What was really infuriating was his comments that now is not the time to do this with the economy in the shape that it’s in, and that the city was in a “much better position to do something” prior to the downturn. I’ve been writing about this situation for well over a year, (see for yourself at this link) and the stalling game this council has played with the mall. There have been public meetings (which Mr. Hansen never attended), studies, a “charrette” – you name it, it’s been done ad nuaseam with this mall. And long before these “hard economic times”.

The most accurate thing he said was “they (Panattoni) are in the mall business, and I’m not. They’re probably more experts than we are.” You wouldn’t know that watching City Council meetings on this subject for the last year and a half. Karen Benker noted that “people are voting with their feet”, which is true, right into other malls and theaters in Boulder, Erie, and Loveland.

Council’s Mall hostility
Sarah Levisons continued apparent hostility towards Panattoni continued with her comments about “strip mall stuff like Harvest Junction”, and how inexperienced the company is. She also kept saying they could build any time they want – although there is the little issue of getting it through Planning and Zoning and a vote of council – which is a consistent NO vote from Ms. Levison.

Like I said prior, drive by Harvest Junction, is that (and the now planned hotel) the small, meaningless potatoes that some on this council pretend it to be? The question was asked, and Ms. Benker didn’t quite get it, so I’ll rephrase it: The pro-mall comments at this meeting notwithstanding, about a year ago you were more positive on the mall situation, something changed and as your support went south, the project stalled. Without using the excuse of the economy (your support fell prior to that), why did your support wane? Was it a shifting interest and prioritization towards Downtown? What has Panattoni done wrong, or differently, to warrant this negative treatment?

These things have consequences
Whatever the reason, all of the citizens of Longmont suffer over this council’s inaction, stalling, and stonewalling of this issue. If nothing happens with Twin Peaks Mall before November, regardless of your newfound and returned support, the stalling by you and the consistent non-support by your fellow councilmembers (Levison, Hansen, and McCoy) will be a major election issue. Count on it.

(Additional resources for this report provided by the Longmont Examiner)

What is the City of Longmont hiding?


The City of Longmont is hiding something from its citizens to protect a “favored” client: Thistle Community Housing, who has proposed to partner with the Longmont Downtown Development Authority (LDDA) on a mixed-use project in downtown Longmont . The City Council needs to explain why it’s considering giving millions in taxpayer dollars to a non-profit developer with potentially serious financial problems. And the city’s financial director needs to explain why he’s keeping this developer’s financial problems a secret.

Thistle wants $9 million from the city
According to a March 26 Times-Call story, LDDA wanted more financial information from Thistle before moving forward with their project. The article stated, “Under the tentative agreement, the LDDA would put up $5.5 million out of its tax increment financing fund and the city would donate the land — valued last year at about $2 million — and would waive about $800,000 in development fees.” And a “$752,000 financing gap that one side or the other must fill”. According to my math, that’s $9,052,000!

City’s Secret Audit
I received an anonymous tip that the City of Longmont did an audit of Thistle, and that the financial audit revealed serious problems. Although LDDA board members were able to see the audit, no one could keep a copy because Thistle asked the Longmont Finance Director Jim Golden to keep the document’s findings a secret.

Now the city is denying Open Records requests to release this information. Thistle is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. How many of you know what that is? I did a random poll of people, none were attorneys, but all knew what a 501(c)(3) was: a group that you can give contributions to and write it off on your taxes. Just about every aspect of these types of organizations is supposed to be open to public scrutiny.

IRS Code mandates Thistle disclose its financial records
When I asked the Longmont City Attorney Eugene Mei about this, his response was: “I am unaware of Thistle’s corporate status, or the law pertaining to 501(C)3 entities.” Let me help out here. At the following link http://www.990online.com/fedlaws.html there is an explanation of this part of the IRS code. Here are some relevant highlights:

26 USC 6104(d). Public Inspection of Certain Annual Returns and Applications for Exemption.
(1) In general.–In the case of an organization described in subsection (c) or (d) of section 501 —
(A) a copy of– (i) the annual return filed under section 6033 (relating to returns by exempt organizations) by such organization, and
(ii) (refers to exemptions, no exemption has been requested)
(B) upon request of an individual made at such principal office or such a regional or district office, a copy of such annual return and exempt status application materials shall be provided to such individual without charge other than a reasonable fee for any reproduction and mailing costs.
The request described in subparagraph (B) must be made in person or in writing. If such request is made in person, such copy shall be provided immediately and, if made in writing, shall be provided within 30 days.

State Records show Thistle $23.5 million in the hole
Thistle’s records, by federal law, are not confidential. Why is Longmont treating it as such? Here’s where it gets interesting, and the point of this story: Thistle did file a short preliminary report with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, as it is required to do. The numbers are troubling, which I’d guess is why the LDDA wanted more financial information and the city did an audit on Thistle. According to this Secretary of State link, for the year ending 9/30/2008 , Thistle had expenses that outpaced revenues by over $4 million, and an End of Year balance of -$23,535,929. Those are both negative numbers. What hasn’t been released yet is the full report describing the sources of revenue, where the expenses went to, and why they were nearly triple the revenue coming in.

What is in the city audit Thistle doesn’t want the public to know?
Now maybe there is a good explanation for this and the numbers could just reveal what is happening to many non-profits during these tough financial times. But these poor numbers should make the public very curious about what the city’s independent audit revealed. The numbers published online by Thistle were bad enough. What is it that the city found that makes Thistle demand that the findings remain a secret?

If you’ll recall, 2 years ago a similar downtown project was discontinued after it was revealed there was a $9 million “financial gap”. And of course we know about the bait and switch of FasTracks and how the price continues to go up and the construction gets further and further away. Regardless of your opinion about this project and this organization, we need to make sure something similar doesn’t happen partnering up with Thistle.

Some council members are playing favorites with developers
Some members of this council stalled Panattoni’s request to move forward with the redeveloping the Twin Peaks Mall, and their emboldened city mouthpieces have smeared Panattoni, a company with a proven record. Look at Harvest Junction and the news releases featuring new stores and even a new hotel, as well as their plans for a new theater and their overall vision for the mall (no, I’m not paid or asked by anyone to say the above).

But when members of this council favor (Thistle) in an area they’d prefer to focus on (Downtown), it gets completely different treatment, even if they may not be financially sound. Something’s rotten here, and the involvement of those involved, including certain members of city council and city staff, should be held accountable. And preferably before this project even gets close to reality.

Go to the LDDA board meeting on Wednesday and ask some good questions
The LDDA will be holding a meeting this Wednesday April 22 at 528 Main Street at 4:15 p.m. If you are concerned about this issue, show up and ask questions, like: Can Thistle really come up with the money to fund this project, or not? Is the city going to be left holding the bag if Thistle goes belly up? Is Thistle using taxpayer money to get itself out of a financial jam? Ask the council members who were on the Technical Review Committee (TRC) that recommended this project if they are aware of this financial information? The council liaison is Karen Benker (303)774-7745 karenbenkerlg@earthlink.net and the staff liaison is Finance Director Jim Golden (who originally denied the Open Records request) (303)651-8629 jim.golden@ci.longmont.co.us

A dark cloud is going to remain over this project unless Longmont lives up to its promise of open and honest government.
(Picture source: City of Longmont government website)

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Work With? Or Work Over Panattoni? Continue reading

Mall (Un)Developments


I leave town for a few days and all heck breaks lose. Longtime city employees resign, “porn inspectors” wreak havoc, and council has a private meeting with the city attorney with yelling being heard during the meeting. It’s weird seeing these Longmont headlines coming across the ol’ Blackberry from a few states away.

Such fertile ground to cover, but since I’ve written plenty of times about the Twin Peaks Mall, figured I’d hit that one first. My first sentence shouldn’t surprise most people: Longmont’s blowing it.

The main point Mayor Lange and other councilmembers were making towards Panattoni’s Will Damrath was that without a final plan, a final version of what to expect, they may not want to move forward. Lots of people (I assume lots of different people, but you never know) have commented about this at the Times-Call comment section of this story, but at the top of my list is this question: How can procrastinating on this and basically doing nothing be better than at least approving something, specifically Phase 1 which would bring a new movie theater, a couple of new anchors and improvements to the current infrastructure?

What Mr. Damrath was proposing was the above, and for now leaving the rest of the mall alone, all to be decided at a later date. But council just couldn’t get past the idea of not knowing what the final product would be. It sounded like an ultimatum to me: “tell us how it will end up, or the deal is off“, in so many words. Way too many things can change in the next few years. To make a plan based on lousy financial times right now could limit the possibilities if things turn around in a couple of years. Killing the whole thing will guarantee that mall will be an eyesore for years to come. How is that good?

What decent anchor store will come in to a mall in that scenario? And now it sounds as if Panattoni is doing that very thing: shopping around for a couple of interim anchor stores. Can’t say I blame them with a rudderless council with little forward vision.

When I was traveling around, I drove by a lot of older malls that make ours look like the Taj Mahal. Talk about blighted. But something told me it was just the way it was and the people have expected it as all they were going to get. But these places weren’t Colorado, they were on the slide, not on the way up. When I looked at them I wondered if this was what was in store for Longmont: lower standards that we’ll just have to learn to live with.

I also believe there’s a contingent here in town that would be just fine with that scenario, heck, let’s turn it into Open Space, destroy the tax base, get rid of those evil companies down there employing people – you know the drill. Real regressive nonsense. It’s sad these types hold sway with members of our current council.

I’ve always thought Longmont could be more and better than it is. This mall had the potential to be a big first step towards that. It appears Longmont’s chance is slipping away, and what future developer will take a chance with a wishy-washy, do-nothing-for-the-future pack of talkers, not doers?

Personally, I’d like to see Panatonni scrap this “partnership” idea, take the ideas from the town meetings, and get going on what we, their consultants, and their prospective tenants think will work best – and just do it. I assume they don’t have the financial capability to go alone on this, or they would’ve.

I just don’t want to be the town that they say this about: “We’ve dealt with larger cities, corporations and the like, and frankly Longmont is a joke that doesn’t know its head from a hole in the ground…that hole being just east of Hover and north of Ken Pratt Parkway. Buh-bye and good luck!”