Willits Town Center plan needs whole lotta lovin’ | AspenTimes.com
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Willits Town Center plan needs whole lotta lovin’

Janet Urquhart/The Aspen TimesExisting businesses at Willits Town Center in Basalt face the foundation of the unbuilt Whole Foods Market building.
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BASALT – Business owners at the Willits Town Center in Basalt aren’t giving up on the idea of what one calls a “fairy tale ending” despite Whole Foods Market’s decision to terminate its lease at the stalled development.

Business and civic leaders said Monday they hope the decision by the grocer, which was envisioned to be the anchor tenant at Willits Town Center, speeds the process of getting the project into the hands of a developer who can complete it.

“I hope this is one step back and the next one is two steps forward,” Basalt Town Manager Bill Kane said Monday. “It’s disappointing but I think there’s a silver lining in the thing.”

Willits Town Center has approvals from the town for about 500,000 square feet of commercial and residential space. Only a small fraction of that has been completed.

Bank of America foreclosed on developer Joseph Freed and Associates (JFA) last year and owns seven of 10 blocks at Willits Town Center. A subsidiary of JFA owns the three remaining blocks, including the Whole Foods Market space. However, the development firm is owner in name only – it has no financing to do anything with the property, which is encumbered by hundreds of thousands of dollars of mechanics’ liens from prior work. A foreclosure action by Bank of America is pending on the three remaining blocks.

“In my mind, Freed and Associates has turned out to be a hapless company, maybe not all of their own doing,” said Jim Polep, owner of Montecito Loft and Home, the oldest business in the center. He opened 4 1/2 years ago. “They haven’t had the wherewithal to get this done – I don’t blame Whole Foods one bit.”

Polep is confident that Willits Town Center will move forward because it is a valuable piece of real estate. It is a question of when another developer acquires the project, not when, in his mind. Timing is of the essence, he said, so that Whole Foods can be persuaded to sign a new lease with the next developer before the natural grocer finds an alternative site, possibly outside the Roaring Fork Valley.

“This is off their plate now, but it will get back on their plate,” Polep said.

Michelle Lowe, founder and owner of Corky Woods, a department store that sells environmentally-friendly products, said she was “bummed” last week when she heard Whole Foods terminated its lease. She and her husband invested their savings into their store with the vision that an anchor like Whole Foods would dramatically increase the traffic in the area.

“It’s devastating at the moment,” Lowe said of Whole Foods’ decision. “This is definitely a mom-and-pop operation. We put the whole farm into it.”

She said she bought her space because that has often been the key for successful retail shops in the valley. So closing the store isn’t really an option. Lowe said she still believes the vision and concept behind the Willits Town Center is sound. A compact, mixed use of residences and businesses centered in the midvalley can draw customers, especially with such an attractive anchor as Whole Foods, she said.

Business owners like Lowe have faced numerous ups and downs at Willits beginning when JFA ran out of financing and construction stalled in September 2008. About 30 percent of the Whole Foods building was completed, mainly the concrete foundation and underground parking garage.

“Let’s just hope this is another bump in the road,” Lowe said.

While she was initially disappointed about Whole Foods’ decision, Lowe said she now realizes it was needed to help spur the project along.

Kane said he has reached the same conclusions after talking as town manager with all parties with a stake in Willits Town Center in recent months.

“While it doesn’t bode well for the Freed organization, the man-on-the-street view is this has to be a step forward,” Kane said.

The move essentially makes Whole Foods a free agent that can sign with any group that wants to buy and develop Willits Town Center. Its fate was previously tied to JFA’s fate.

Bank of America was accepting offers on Willits Town Center but obviously didn’t get one it felt was satisfactory. The bank recently listed the property with Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate marketing firm. The online listing for Willits Town Center touts the lease with Whole Foods in the unfinished building, among other highlights.

In a statement released Monday, Bank of America said it is confident its direction is best for all parties involved.

“The bank group worked with the developer, Joseph Freed, for two years to get this project underway and it did not happen,” the statement said. “The developer was in default on the loan and was unwilling or unable to put more money into the project. In the end recognizing the importance of the project to the community, the bank group foreclosed because they thought it was the right solution for the project, the community and the banks.”

Maggie McVoy, manager of Willits Wine and Spirits, located just off the center, said she is frustrated that decisions that affect so many business owners, employees and residents of the midvalley are in the hands of banks and real estate marketing firms located far away. The project is probably just numbers to them, she said, while locals understand that Whole Foods is essential to the Willits concept.

McVoy said she hopes Whole Foods’ decision makes bankers realize they need to “put pen to paper” and solve the impasse. If that is the result, the latest move could be a step forward.

“I’m not totally discouraged. I think Whole Foods would really, really like to be here,” she said.

Polep said he will wait for what he sees as the inevitable completion of the center and better business days ahead. “I’m going to hang in there,” he said.

Lowe said: “We’ve all been waiting for the fairy tale ending.”

scondon@aspentimes.com


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