Lender aims to preserve a Willits Whole Foods outlet | AspenTimes.com

Lender aims to preserve a Willits Whole Foods outlet

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

BASALT – There are renewed signs of life for the Whole Foods Market building at Willits Town Center.Bank of America, which has initiated a foreclosure on the project, has agreed to two important steps necessary to keep the project intact until ownership issues are resolved.”There’s value there. They’re interested in protecting that value,” said Mike Staheli, project manager at Willits Town Center for Cordes & Co., a court-appointed receiver that is overseeing the project.Bank of America officials authorized Staheli to seek amendments to the original approval of the Whole Foods building from Basalt town government. The approval needs to be tweaked because the grocery chain wants a smaller space than originally contemplated.The Basalt Town Council is scheduled to hold a joint meeting with the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission at 5 p.m. Tuesday to start the review process, according to town Planning Director Susan Philp.Both the planning commission and the council will hold meetings throughout August in an effort to complete the review by September. Whole Foods Market signed a lease in March with developer Joseph Freed and Associates (JFA) that requires construction to commence by September.The project has been in jeopardy since the Chicago-based development firm ran into financing problems because of the recession. Construction stalled in September 2008, and the original lease with Whole Foods for a 44,000-square-foot market lapsed.Whole Foods signed a new lease for a 25,000-square-foot store in March, but construction never resumed. Bank of America started a foreclosure proceeding in April while alleging JFA’s Willits Town Center Partners LLC defaulted on a loan with $36 million still due. Bank of American also successfully asked a state district judge to appoint Cordes & Co. as a receiver. That removed JFA from control.Staheli said Bank of America officials want to keep Whole Foods as a tenant. Having an anchor tenant enhances the value of the rest of the development and guarantees income. The lease is for 20 years with six options of five years each.Bank of America officials authorized returning to the land use review process as part of the effort “to keep that lease alive and a viable option,” Staheli said.He said he isn’t privy to the status of the foreclosure or any possible negotiations between JFA and Bank of America. JFA officials have repeatedly said they intend to retain control of the project through negotiations with Bank of America or by coming up with alternative funding. A foreclosure sale is scheduled for Aug. 25.In a second sign that Bank of America wants to cultivate the Willits Town Center project, it agreed Tuesday to provide a $910,000 letter of credit to pay for its share of a pedestrian underpass of Highway 82. The underpass is part of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s expansion plan. The bus agency wants to place major bus stops to serve Willits Town Center and the Tree Farm, a proposed development across the highway. However, RFTA will only spend $1.2 million to construct the bus stops if each of the developments pay $910,000 and the town provides $500,000 for the underpass.The deal is tenuous. The Tree Farm developer said Tuesday he will only provide the cash when his project is approved by Eagle County government. It has received the first of three necessary approvals. Final approval could take years.Staheli noted that Bank of America’s pledge of $910,000 is only good if all parties sign the agreement. The lender’s pledge would be assigned to whatever entity takes over the project, he said.Basalt Councilwoman Jacque Whitsitt was cautiously optimistic that Bank of America’s actions indicate the Whole Foods building will be completed after years of delays.”At least it’s something happening,” Whitsitt said. “I don’t see how it could be worse [than it is].”Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go before the long-awaited project is completed, she said.”It’s hard to get excited until the fat lady sings,” Whitsitt said.scondon@aspentimes.com

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