Friday, April 8, 2011

URA doesn’t budge on business plan

Board tells businesses that agency needs lease revenue


By TREVON MILLIARD
Express Staff Writer

Alexander McLaughlin, a lawyer hired by the Ketchum group opposing the URA’s plans for the visitor center building, listens to the discussion Wednesday night. Photo by David N. Seelig

Mark Eshman, Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency's vice-chair, made it abundantly clear—to the audience's dismay at a town hall meeting Wednesday—that the public agency's main duty is to pay back its $6.5 million in debt and reach for revenue to do so.

He argued that even though the Ketchum business owners filling the audience don't want the publicly owned visitor center used for private purposes—such as a proposed Starbucks franchise—the URA-owned building needs to turn a profit. He said rent-paying tenants are the solution, something that hasn't been done for the four years that the URA has owned the downtown building and let several nonprofits call it home.

"Somebody has to go into that space. That's our opinion," he said, adding that the investment needs to be "maximized." He said having a noncommercial use there would be against the URA's "fiduciary" responsibility.

A group of livid community members and business owners see the URA's responsibility differently, arguing that that the public entity should act in adherence to the wishes of Ketchum taxpayers, who provide the nearly $500,000 in annual property taxes that fuel the URA.

"Their fiduciary responsibility is not to the bondholders but to the public," said Alexander McLaughlin, a lawyer hired by the group opposing the URA's plans for the visitor center building. "The public is making its feelings quite clear, and the URA is ignoring them. This is all about a bad debt, but these people have pitchforks. They're ready to burn barns."

Ketchum resident Bob Jonas—father of URA board member Nina Jonas—recommended that the URA let the community vote on how to use the building at Sun Valley Road and East Avenue. Eshman said the problem with that is the community might want something like a museum that generates little to no income for the URA.

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"Even though the public wants that, the URA may not do it," said Eshman, who did most of the answering for the URA on Wednesday even though all of City Council and the mayor are on the seven-member board and were in attendance. Jonas, Trish Wilson and URA Chair and Mayor Randy Hall also spoke, but board members and City Council members Curtis Kemp, Baird Gourlay and Larry Helzel remained quiet.

Eshman said the building's current tenant, Sun Valley Marketing Alliance, hasn't paid rent for the last four years but will have to do so from here on, and a lease is being negotiated. Members of the audience questioned why the Marketing Allinace, previously the Chamber & Visitors Bureau, wasn't paying rent during the past four years. Hall said that's because the city supplies the majority of the chamber's budget and would just be taking back its own money. However, resident Phyllis Shafran interjected, the URA is separate from the city, bringing to light what some see as a conflict of interest. Even though the URA and city are legally separate entities, the city's elected leaders also run the URA. Shafran asked if the city would pay the URA four years of back rent. Hall said that's to be determined.

Wednesday's meeting ended no closer to a compromise between the URA and Ketchum proprietors. Eshman told everyone they're welcome to attend the April 12 meeting, which is when the URA will review proposals from businesses wanting to rent half the visitor center's ground floor. Hall said only Starbucks has stepped into the ring so far, and the deadline is Monday.

The animosity didn't subside even at the meeting's close, when Eshman said the follow-up April 12 meeting will be at noon.

"That's a good time for us [business owners]," sarcastically replied Keith Perry, owner of Perry's restaurant.

Eshman replied that every meeting he goes to costs him money.

"It costs us money, too," members of the audience simultaneously shouted.

Hall said the meeting didn't change his opinion to rent to Starbucks or whoever has the most appealing application.

"We're going to have to agree to disagree," he said. "Our community cannot afford to say no to new investment or capital."

Trevon Milliard: tmilliard@mtexpress.com




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