HOPE FLOATS BUT WON'T FILL HOLE
A year ago the good news was that the City of La Grande had managed to negotiate a purchase price for La Grande's infamous downtown burned-out hole. That news was followed earlier this year with word that a Portland man with experience in developing downtown properties had agreed to purchase the property with plans to develop a mixed-use building, combining retail space and apartments.
PLANS WERE drawn up for what the four-story building might look like. D.W. Sievers Co. moved forward with the purchase of the property for $28,000, about half of what the city paid in order to see something finally happen with the Bohnenkamp hole. The only thing missing, apparently, was money.
The dream went up in smoke last week when the city announced that Sievers had withdrawn his offer. That no money had been forthcoming from Sievers should have been a clue that something might be amiss in this transaction.
THE CONCEPT for a mixed-use building was a good one. Ground-floor retail and upper-story residential makes sense in these days when downtowns are struggling to stay afloat. Nowhere is that more apparent than in downtown La Grande. Getting projects to pencil isn't easy.
Two lessons can be learned from the Sievers offer. First, it's difficult to attract investment to downtown almost any downtown. La Grande's downtown presents a significant challenge, especially considering the prospect of Wal-Mart opening a super center here in the next few years. Sievers floated the dream for the Bohnenkamp hole before he researched the investment potential of his project.
SECONDLY, NEVER accept a developer's plan at face value. Rarely do developers have the funds to turn their projects into reality. They're the concept men who expect to find others who will back their ideas with money. Sometimes their strategy works. Sometimes it doesn't.
The city made the right choice in pursuing the purchase of the Bohnenkamp property, ravaged by a fire in April 1994. The fact that the first developer to come along didn't pan out isn't the end of the world. In fact, it's not unusual. The city holds title to the lot, which makes moving the property much more likely than it was prior to the city buying the lot.
Finding the right developer, one who can successfully balance private investment with tax credits and grants, might take some time. The good news remains the same that the lot's owner is sincerely interested in seeing the property developed rather than just letting it sit there.