Willits hopes to remain Whole | AspenTimes.com

Willits hopes to remain Whole

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

BASALT The developer of the Willits Town Center in Basalt hopes to keep Whole Foods Market as an anchor tenant even though it wont meet a June 1 deadline to provide a building for the grocer.Were continuing in discussions with them, said Jayne Thompson, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based development firm Joseph Freed & Associates (JFA).JFA has a contract to provide a 44,000-square-foot space to Whole Foods on June 1. It is obvious that deadline wont be met, although Thompson wouldnt acknowledge the point last week. Construction on the building stalled Labor Day. Financing for the project dried up in the credit crisis, an official of the company said at the time. With the deadline just three weeks away, only the concrete foundation of the building has been completed.JFA representatives have approached the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to see if the bus agency is interested in buying some of the 98 parking spaces in an underground parking garage associated with the Whole Foods Market, according to a RFTA executive. RFTA is developing transit stations around the valley.Thompson said the development company is exploring all options. Using parking for a transit stop and a supermarket arent mutually exclusive, she said.However, Whole Foods contract requires the 98-space parking garage and a 200-space surface parking lot for its 44,000-square-foot store. Fewer parking spaces would be needed for a smaller store.It really doesnt signify anything at this point, Thompson insisted.

Whole Foods Market officials wont comment on their future in Basalt. Representatives of the natural foods grocer have repeatedly said they have a contract with JFA and they cannot comment until the status of the contract is determined.Whole Foods was on an aggressive growth spurt until the economy crashed last year. Since then, it has shrunk, delayed or abandoned plans in several cities after landlords defaulted on leases or development contracts.The company terminated 11 leases in development and downsized nine other leases by an average of 10,000 square feet in the third quarter of last year. For its fiscal year 2009, it planned to reduce its new store openings by 50 percent.The Basalt store is still listed as in development on the Whole Foods website. If all had gone as planned, JFA was going to turn over the exterior of the building by June 1. Whole Foods own finish crew would have completed the interior space. The store was supposed to open in late 2009 or early 2010.

Thompson said JFA has a strong relationship with Whole Foods. The development firm is working on a project in Schaumburg, Ill., southwest of Chicago, where Whole Foods will be a tenant. The store was initially inked for a 60,000-square-foot space. When construction was delayed, the two companies renegotiated a deal for a 50,000-square-foot market. Thompson said that demonstrates the interest and ability of the firms to work out problems.JFA also has resumed construction of a major project in Chicago called Block 37. Construction stalled, but the company secured financing, and work has resumed. Although that project has nothing to do with Whole Foods, it displays JFAs ability to weather the tough economic times, Thompson said.These are the kinds of things developers are facing, she said.Representatives of Whole Foods and JFA will discuss the status of the Basalt store at the International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas, May 17-20, according to Thompson. That convention is one of the biggest in the country for developers and major tenants.Thompson said she couldnt speculate on how, or even if, the negotiations could reshape the supermarket.

Whole Foods appears to have the leverage in the discussions. JFA needs Whole Foods more than the grocery chain needs a presence in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Willits Town Center is approved for 500,000 square feet of commercial and residential space. Only two buildings have been constructed in the core, along with the adjacent Willits General Store and Alpine Bank Building, which were completed some time ago. Eight more buildings, in addition to the supermarket, are approved in the core.But Whole Foods was seen as the hub of the development. The store was expected to draw enough people to make the rest of the commercial development viable. Most of the tenants who have already leased or bought space at Willits did so with the expectation that Whole Foods would move in.Right now, most of what was supposed to be a vibrant village core is an abandoned construction zone.Basalt Town Manager Bill Kane said the town government is watching and waiting what happens at Willits Town Center like everybody else. He said he recently talked to Larry Freed, the head of the development company, and learned that Whole Foods remains the firms top priority but that other natural foods grocers would be pursued if necessary.Kane said he didnt know without further research if the town holds performance bonds that would cover cleaning up the construction site if work doesnt progress after some period of time. Neighbors in the residential part of Willits have expressed concerns to the town government about dust blowing off dirt piles at the construction site, he said.JFA officials view this as a construction project in progress rather than an abandoned site, Kane said.scondon@aspentimes.com