by William Skink
Five years ago Peter Lambros threatened the Missoula Redevelopment Agency with mall blight if it didn’t cough up millions in public financing for a road. Millions had already been invested, said Lambros, and without public TIF sweetener the whole deal would collapse:
Southgate Mall Associates said the public portion of funding is essential for the project to move forward. The mall’s owners, surrounding residents, local contractors and MRA staff believe the project would have sweeping implications for the betterment of Missoula’s south side.
The owners have already invested $18 million in private funding to acquire more property, including the old Val-U Inn, Curley’s Broiler and the Sears store, and they’re ready to move forward with a $45 million expansion of the mall itself.
But if the pieces of the larger project are slowly whittled away due to the city’s apprehension to the upfront costs, backers warned, then the entire project could crumble.
They urged the board to consider the big picture, along with the benefits the project would bring down the road.
“TIF was created to take things that are hard to pull off, to fill a gap, augment and to leverage that development in a way that otherwise couldn’t be done,” said Peter Lambros of Southgate Mall Associates. “It’s meaningful and the project will go further with the support we’ve requested.”
Peter Lambros and Southgate Mall Associates got their public money, then turned around and flipped the property to an Ohio-based conglomerate for 58 million dollars. Here is how Lambros explained the move to KGVO in February of 2018:
‘Over the past five years, we’ve put into motion the evolution of Southgate— from a mall, to a mixed-use town center. Our efforts have focused on the development of a top tier grocer, Lucky’s Market, state-of-the-art entertainment, with AMC’s dine-in theater, and enhanced neighborhood connectivity. As we near the completion of our vision, we believe Southgate’s current potential is so significant, that it will outgrow the existing ownership group. Washington Prime has the capacity to further Southgate’s development, and shares our philosophy of commitment to our community, and our retailers. The current ownership has retained its land-holdings adjacent to Southgate, and intends continue development at Southgate with a focus on apartments and mixed-use. The ownership remains committed to the site, and to our community. We are excited about the news and will share more details once the transaction is complete.’
I think this context is important when considering the bombshell news that JC Penny’s and Lucky’s Market have both announced closing up shop at Southgate
Mall town center. Ouch.
With two major anchor-retailers calling it quits, I think it’s fair to ask what exactly did Missoula get for its public investment? A road? An out-of-state property owner? An even more wealthy Peter Lambros?
After Lambros flipped this property, the director of MRA, Ellen Buchanan, had a PR problem. Here is how she spun the fact public money enabled Lambros to sell off this massive property to out-of-state interests:
Buchanan believes there may be more opportunities for cooperation with Peter Lambros and his real estate connections.
“One of the things that Peter Lambros talked about was that this would free them up to develop the property that’s south of Bob Wards, which is a fairly large tract of land that we’ve been looking at for as long as I’ve been here, that’s about 14 years, and this will free them up to focus on that. Also, because of the resources the new owners will bring to the mall, the long range plan for the mall will probably be realized more quickly.”
Ellen Buchanan’s prediction has now completely deflated, along with the bullshit re-branding effort to call the mall a mixed-use town center. I guess changing the name of what you call this property couldn’t stop the trend away from brick and mortar retail. Gee, who could have seen that coming?
Will there be any accountability for this stupid use of public money? Yeah, right. Instead it’s on to the next boondoggle, Nick Checota’s Big D(rift), where the public will be getting a parking garage for 16.5 million dollars.
Meanwhile, the cost of housing in Missoula continues to skyrocket. Maybe Peter Lambros–the only true winner of the Southgate Mall deal–can translate some of that 58 million to affordable housing.
Because that’s what all we can hope for, right Missoula? Benevolent crumbs from wealthy developers who have no shame panhandling MRA for TIF money before selling us out to some out-of-state conglomerate.