A subtle changing of the guard at Willits | AspenTimes.com

A subtle changing of the guard at Willits

BASALT ” After 18 years of serving as the face and voice of the midvalley development now known as the Willits Town Center, Michael Lipkin is quietly slipping into a secondary role.

Lipkin has slowly but surely deferred to Tim Belinski to represent the development team in recent dealings with the Basalt Town Council. Belinski is vice president of development for Joseph Freed and Associates, a Chicago-based company that is the sole owner of Willits Town Center.

Joseph Freed and Associates bought out Lipkin and his former partners, Clay Crossland and Paul Adams, for $22 million in September 2006.

Despite the sale, Lipkin remained the primary spokesman for the development for about the next year. The project was, after all, his baby. Lipkin submitted plans to Eagle County in 1989 for a project he called El Jebel Junction. It ultimately was rejected by the county commissioners.

The site just upvalley from the El Jebel City Market was annexed into the town of Basalt in 1994 after a convincing endorsement by Basalt voters. Lipkin resurrected his development proposal as the Sopris Meadows project.

Lipkin, Crossland and Adams received initial approvals from the town in 1995, then relations soured. The developers threatened to file a lawsuit over the town’s affordable housing requirements.

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Basalt’s review lasted a total of six years ” but the final step alone took 18 months. The final approval was granted by a 4-1 vote in December 2000. Somewhere along the line, the name morphed into Willits Town Center.

Economic doldrums stalled development in 2001 and 2002. Lipkin acknowledged last year he was in over his head trying to construct a project that large and find tenants for what’s essentially a new downtown core. He sought a larger development firm to take on the tasks and was impressed by Larry Freed of Joseph Freed and Associates.

The Chicago-based development firm was largely invisible until Belinski was hired by the company four months ago. Belinski is the former chief financial officer of Sport Obermeyer. He left the ski wear manufacturer to successfully head Klaus Obermeyer’s effort to redevelop property in Aspen called Obermeyer Place.

Once that was completed, he wanted to remain in real estate development, he said. Lipkin approached Belinski and suggested he talk to Joseph Freed and Associates about heading their midvalley project.

Belinski said he is taking on more of a lead role now that he is learning more about Willits Town Center’s complex history and approvals. He has a three-person team that includes development manager Neil Palmquist, development assistant Jennifer Donovan and construction manager Darin Pippo.

Joseph Freed and Associates is seeking a modification of the approvals to allow construction of a space for a Whole Foods supermarket.

Lipkin remains a partner in the project even though he isn’t an owner, according to Belinski. He is the “visionary” of the project, and his firm, Lipkin-Warner Design and Planning, will design the buildings at Willits Town Center, Belinski said.

“He’s part of the development group going forward, for sure,” Belinski said. “My message to you is he will be around for a long time.”

Lipkin retained a financial interest in the project. The relationship with Joseph Freed and Associates gives Lipkin a “profits participation” opportunity, Belinski said.

But his role clearly is evolving. Within the last month, Belinski has emerged as the main spokesman for Willits Town Center in delicate negotiations with the Town Council.

As the owner, Joseph Freed and Associates needs to take more of a leadership role, according to Belinski. He said he will take the lead position in trying to secure modified approvals and “reaching out to the community.”

To help with that effort, Joseph Freed and Associates hired Ecoe Marketing, a firm headed by former Aspen Skiing Co. marketing and public relations managers Killeen Brettmann and Bobbie Burkley. Sheryl Barto of Barto Communications is working with Lipkin.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com