Willits uncertainty weighs on RFTA expansion plan | AspenTimes.com

Willits uncertainty weighs on RFTA expansion plan

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

BASALT – The uncertainty surrounding the ownership and future of the stalled Willits Town Center project in Basalt is starting to affect public policy in the midvalley.The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority wants to build a new bus stop at Willits as part of its bus rapid transit project. But it will only construct the bus stop if there is an overpass or underpass to get pedestrians safely across Highway 82.Another development called the Tree Farm is proposed across Highway 82 from Willits Town Center. The bus stop on the north side of the highway would be incorporated into that project, if it is approved by the Eagle County commissioners. The Tree Farm has received one of three approvals it needs.RFTA consultants figure the underpass will cost about $2.3 million. Basalt Planning Director Susan Philp unveiled a proposal Tuesday night for Willits Town Center to pay $910,000; the Tree Farm to pay $910,000; and the town of Basalt to pay nearly $500,000 for the underpass. RFTA will pay for other costs associated with the bus stop.RFTA Executive Director Dan Blankenship said the organization needs a solid financial commitment, such as a letter of credit, from the two developers by Aug. 1. He indicated he is confident from discussions with representatives of the projects’ owners that the funds can be supplied.”I think we’re in good shape – or as good as we could be,” Blankenship said.But Basalt Town Council members at the meeting weren’t so sure. Councilwoman Anne Freedman said the “elephant in the corner” is the cloudy future of Willits Town Center.Owner and developer Joseph Freed and Associates ran out of financing in September 2008 and put construction of the project on hold. Freed’s lender, Bank of America, successfully sought a court order last month to get a receiver appointed to run the project, essentially wrestling control away from Freed.Bank of America also started foreclosure proceedings in April, contending Freed’s Willits Town Center Partners defaulted on a loan with $36 million still due.”Is the Willits Town Center in any position to make a commitment?” Freedman asked. “Is the Tree Farm in any position to make a commitment?”Councilman Glenn Rappaport said it will be difficult to get an answer to the question about Willits Town Center. “Bank of America isn’t sitting here raising their hands saying, ‘We’re in,'” he said. Mike Staheli, the manager of the Willits Town Center project for Cordes & Co., the firm appointed as the receiver, told The Aspen Times Wednesday he couldn’t say if the project will be in position to pay nearly $1 million for the underpass.Staheli said he participated in a meeting with RFTA and Basalt town staff May 14 to learn more about the project. He said he understands how the underpass and bus stop could be important to the long-term health of Willits Town Center. His research also indicated the owner of the project is obligated to make a financial contribution to the planned infrastructure.Staheli said he will provide a report to Bank of America recommending that a contribution be made to the underpass. However, he said he couldn’t say how the lender will respond.”Basically, I can bring the matter to the attention of the creditor,” Staheli said.Bank of America has filed a “notice of election and demand for sale” with the public trustee of Eagle County. It is a first vital step in the foreclosure process. Bank of America is seeking a foreclosure sale on Aug. 25. The process requires approval by an Eagle County district judge before the trustee can proceed.When the foreclosure process started, Freed released a statement saying it would continue to try to work on an agreement with Bank of America and, as a possible alternative, also seek replacement financing.Freed spokeswoman Jayne Thompson said company officials had little to add. “We will be defending our interests in the property,” she said.Along with uncertainty over Willits Town Center, Basalt council members also raised questions about funding from the Tree Farm. Owner and developer Ace Lane will be in a position of having to make a financial commitment for the underpass on Aug. 1, well before he knows if his project will earn approval from Eagle County.Representatives for Lane told the council Tuesday night that he is prepared to make the necessary financial commitments.For now, the Basalt council also is going along with the funding plan for the underpass. The board voted 6-0 to continue working on an agreement with the other parties for the project. The council is scheduled to revisit the issue twice before Aug. 1.scondon@aspentimes.com