By Tom Boyd
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August 21, 2009 — Mayor Gordon “Hawkeye” Flaherty is not at all concerned that a proposed private ski and golf development south of his town of 1,200 may never get off the ground due to the languishing mountain real estate market, nor is he waiting on “a pot of money” from the developer to address the struggling former railroad town’s sagging infrastructure.
Once a boomtown servicing the state’s thriving mining industry in the late 19th century, Minturn’s recent history is one of land speculators, water grabs, lingering mine pollution and second-tier status situated between the wildly successful ski resorts of Vail and Beaver Creek.
Some ski bums love the town’s funky feel and its rundown Main Street sprinkled with a few bars, restaurants, galleries and double-wide trailers. But other residents, including members of the town council, want more for tiny Minturn — a piece of the opulent ski-town pie realtors in the rest of Eagle County have been gobbling up for years. And they thought they had it in Florida-based developer Bobby Ginn and his proposed Battle Mountain project.
In May of last year, 367 of Minturn’s 720 registered voters turned out, and by a margin of 87 to 13 percent, backed the council’s decision to annex 4,300 acres of the 5,300-acre Battle Mountain parcel. That annexation deal called for nearly $200 million in public benefits from the Ginn Company — everything from a new recreation center to a new wastewater treatment plant to new parks and sidewalks.
In exchange, Battle Mountain, on the soaring slopes south of town, would begin the approval process on a $1 billion project that would include 1,700 new homes, a private 18-hole golf course, a private ski area and two gondolas
But it’s been a series of setbacks for the project ever since that May 2008 vote. First the Great Recession hit, leading to the bankruptcy of some of Ginn’s Florida resorts, then the company lost its bid to secure valuable water rights, and finally it become embroiled in a lawsuit stemming from an ownership dispute over a dozen acres of the Battle Mountain parcel.
That lawsuit is holding up the final annexation agreement, Flaherty says, and the recession is keeping Ginn from filing its project plans for town approval.
“What’s happening to the Ginn Company is the same thing that’s happened to most of the developers in the valley,” Flaherty said. “It’s economic hard times, and they’re re-evaluating what they’ve done and trying to find a way to move forward.”
Then last week RealVail.com revealed plans by another golf developer in the Vail Valley, Cordillera, to participate in the Battle Mountain development, build a private slope-side club and offer reciprocal golf memberships.
Cordillera, which already owns four golf courses in the valley, is financially backed by the Philadelphia-based real investment firm Lubert-Adler, which also has a stake in many of the Ginn Company projects. Flaherty said an ownership change wouldn’t impact Battle Mountain’s preliminary annexation deal with the town, which is tied to the project, not the owner.
“Right now that’s the way it is, yep,” Flaherty said. “We’re waiting on the final annexation to be approved, and when that’s done, it’ll be done and it’ll up to the new owners to decide what they want to do.”
But Minturn resident and community activist Frank Lorenti, who circulated the petition to force a referendum on the annexation deal last year, said a new developer should have to start over with voters.
“The Minturn citizens need to approve any new developer and bring it back to a citizen’s vote,” Lorenti said. “The citizens now know what the truth is, and another vote might go different if certain concessions are not made by the new developer — like smaller scale and money up front before the vote with no strings attached.”
Lorenti has been trying unsuccessfully to get the town council to put pressure on Ginn to release millions of dollars reportedly held up in escrow by the pending land-ownership lawsuit.
A Ginn Company spokesman did not respond to several e-mailed questions regarding the current ownership situation, but a representative told a Florida real estate blog last week the company has had “conversations with numerous parties who are interested in being part of this development.”
Flaherty said uncertainty in town is not affecting municipal operations.
“We deal with the situation at hand and we’re not putting things off because we’re waiting for this big pot of money,” Flaherty said. “If things need to be fixed, we get them fixed, and we plan for the future appropriately and we budget for the future appropriately. We’re not waiting for the Ginn Company to come around before we do what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Lorenti, though, says the town should be more forceful in getting promised money out of the Ginn Company, and should force any new owner to go back to the drawing board.
“Most definitely re-negotiate, but Minturn council says they do not have to. I will try and get a referendum petition together again if they officially announce a new owner, though.
“But Minturn is a Ginn-owned company town — ‘Ginn-turn’ — and company towns do not go after their boss with demands. It will need a new name, though, if Cordillera does become the new owner.”
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