A nonprofit organization’s plan to relocate residents of the Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park to other housing in Basalt could have worked, given more time, according to philanthropist George Stranahan.
Roaring Fork Community Development Corp. diligently tried to find land where replacement housing could be provided for trailer-park residents, but opportunities disappeared, and the Basalt town government shifted directions, Stranahan said.
“The town has taken the steering wheel,” he said. “They’ve taken it from us.”
Stranahan is the founder of the Manaus Fund, which has a mission of bringing entrepreneurial spirit to social justice and nonprofit causes. Manaus was the parent of Community Development Corp., and Stranahan was a big backer of the nonprofit’s purchase of the Pan and Fork on Aug. 14, 2011.
He and Community Development Corp. President Michael McVoy touted their plan on the day of the purchase to find replacement housing for the trailer-park residents. The plan was to find alternative sites for housing that would be rented or sold to the existing residents. The plan hinged on getting approval for a hotel and associated commercial development on the Pan and Fork site so Community Development Corp. could raise the money to pay off its loans and build new housing.
Stranahan and McVoy always felt Community Development Corp. would be in a better position than a governmental agency to provide housing because it had the flexibility to work with residents regardless of their legal status.
Community Development Corp.’s goal was to have the residents relocated by late spring 2013.
“That was our primary priority when we stepped in there,” Stranahan said of the relocation effort. “Everybody needs to get out of that place. It was a slum.”
Another important part of the plan was a partnership with the town government. Community Development Corp. bought the 5.3-acre Pan and Fork for $3.25 million. The town immediately purchased 2.9 acres from Community Development Corp. for $1.2 million. The town’s plan was to develop a park alongside the Roaring Fork River while Community Development Corp. pursued development of its portion of the site.
The plan “really was workable” and the partnership looked “promising,” Stranahan said, but then the relationship took a turn. Community Development Corp. held community-visioning meetings and eventually submitted a plan for a hotel for the town’s review. It also made arrangement with a Texas developer to build the hotel.
The town government hired an independent consultant to perform an economic-feasibility study on the developer’s plan and examine his resources. The town determined Community Development Corp.’s partner couldn’t pull off the development, so it shifted gears and took on the relocation effort itself.
“The town did that unilaterally,” Stranahan said. “In that sense, it was too quick. We didn’t talk about it.”
Town Manager Mike Scanlon said the more he learned about Community Development Corp.’s plan, the more concerned he became. The organization wasn’t going to make any money on the deal it proposed with the developer, so no funds would have been available for relocation of residents. In addition, none of Community Development Corp.’s plans had prospects of panning out. Meanwhile, the town was prepared to perform the work to ease flood threats and build a riverside park. The vital first step was relocating the residents.
“My argument is we went too long,” Scanlon said. “We should have taken a more proactive role earlier on.”
In addition, the town has a responsibility to determine if a developer can deliver on promises. The pro forma on Community Development Corp.’s partner indicated the developer would require a substantial public subsidy to build a parking garage, Scanlon said.
Scanlon said he didn’t want to place any blame with Community Development Corp. It simply had a plan that didn’t work out.
“I think there were a lot of good intentions,” he said.
As the applicant, Community Development Corp. could have put pressure on the town to review the hotel project and either approve or deny it. Stranahan said Community Development Corp. tried for two years to advance the project. He said he isn’t sure what more could have been done. Basalt is “notorious” for being tough on development reviews and taking a long time, he said.
“We knew it was going to be difficult,” he said.
The glacial review process wasn’t the only problem. Community Development Corp.’s leads on property for alternative housing evaporated.
“In the end, we were chasing things that were disappearing,” Stranahan said.
The town government has relocated slightly more than half of the residents of the 35 trailers that were occupied, according to Scanlon. The town is offering financial packages of between $15,000 and $22,000 to help residents make down payments for purchases or deposits on rentals. It also is helping residents locate housing within the Basalt school district.
Negotiations are underway with additional residents, but approximately 10 families are protesting the relocation effort. They demanded replacement housing instead.
Many of the residents blame Community Development Corp. for allegedly breaking its promises of providing housing. Stranahan indicated he feels the charge is unfair.
“A story has a hero and villain. We’ll survive,” he said.
He also believes the situation is working out for the best with fair deals from the town. Legally, the landlords only have to provide 30 days notice for eviction. Stranahan said he understands the desires of the residents to move into replacement housing. Community Development Corp. wasn’t able to achieve that goal.
“We stretched our resources as far as we could,” he said. If Community Development Corp. sells its property, it will pay off its creditors and use the remainder to assist the residents, possibly with low-interest loans, he said.
“My guess is we’ll look back and see that it turned out all right,” Stranahan said. “It’s going to be OK but not great.”