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Riverwalk consultant airs concerns

The consultant for East Grand Forks' Riverwalk Centre mall said Tuesday that he's not sure he wants to work with the city any more. The Economic Development and Housing Authority had hired Larry Stammen, a former manager of the Grand Cities mall,...

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The consultant for East Grand Forks' Riverwalk Centre mall said Tuesday that he's not sure he wants to work with the city any more.

The Economic Development and Housing Authority had hired Larry Stammen, a former manager of the Grand Cities mall, to help revive the ailing Riverwalk Centre.

Later, the group appointed him the lead negotiator with Moore Family Theatres, a company that's building a movie theater at the mall.

Yet, Stammen complained, he's been kept out of the loop and at least one EDHA member agrees with him.

"At this point in time, I don't really know where I stand, what my responsibilities are and I'm not in total agreement with what's happening," he told EDHA members Tuesday.

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He's referring to disagreements with EDHA executive director Jim Richter over the direction of the mall and, more specifically, the lease-purchase agreement Richter negotiated with the theater operators in his absence.

That agreement said the city would have to guarantee $675,000 in loans the company was taking out with its lenders and provide various other financial incentives.

Too risky

Stammen said he considers the loan guarantee far too risky for the city and doesn't want his name associated with the agreement. The guarantee was necessary in the first place, he said, because the city can't sell the mall until 2013, contrary to Richter's assumption that it could be sold now or next year.

Richter, who has served as the de facto mall manager for the past several years, said he doesn't know what Stammen is talking about because he and Stammen were present at most of the negotiation sessions.

Most EDHA members appeared neutral Tuesday though, when asked, Steve Gander, who also sits on the City Council, agreed with Stammen: "He wasn't allowed the role in negotiations that he should've played."

He said he doesn't believe Stammen was deliberately sidelined by Richter, who, in his "zeal" for the deal, gave Moore Family Theatres everything it wanted.

That's in reference to the initial draft of the agreement in which the city would have to guarantee most of the company's loans, worth about $1.5 million.

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The completion of the deal doesn't end the conflict between Stammen and Richter, however. Stammen's contract still calls for him to help bring in new tenants to replace those that have left or plan to leave.

For example, Jack's Shoes, which had failed to agree to repay back rents, and Curves will be moving out in the next few months.

Stammen's strategy included upgrading the mall's exterior and targeting new businesses that would build on the strengths of downtown's entertainment district. EDHA leaders agreed last year, but now there appears to be a move to just fill the mall in a less targeted fashion.

EDHA member and Council President Dick Grassel told Stammen that the city only has so much money and taxpayers want the mall to put money back into city coffers. The way to do that, he figured, is to fill the mall.

But the strategy of just filling the mall is what got the city to this point in the first place. An inordinate number of tenants have been chronically late on rent. Some have closed up shop still owing rent. The most significant example was Ben Franklin Crafts, which moved to the Grand Cities Mall earlier this year still owing the EDHA around $409,000.

As a result, the mall lost $87,000 last year and is budgeted to lose $90,000 this year, losses borne by taxpayers.

Gander and EDHA member Nan Larson said Tuesday that they favored Stammen's more focused strategy, as the EDHA had earlier agreed to it.

"We can't change gears now," Larson said.

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But how the EDHA can retain Stammen and give him a clear role to play is another matter. Larson, Gander and another EDHA member Marilyn Larson are to meet with the consultant to work something out.

Tran reports on City Hall. Reach him at (701) 780-1248 or ttran@gfherald.com or see his blog at www.areavoices.com/gfhcitybeat .

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