City of Walla Walla action on mall OK'd

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U-B FILE PHOTO: Demolition of the Blue Mountain Mall in Walla Walla halted in its tracks. The mall was later sold at auction, but problems remain.

WALLA WALLA -- The city of Walla Walla has been granted access to the ravaged Blue Mountain Mall property for cleanup.

In an order issued this morning, Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht also said property owner Walla Walla Town Center LLC owes the city $1,000 in fines for failing to abate nuisances in a timely manner. He authorized the city to levy $500 fines per day for every day after June 20 that the nuisances aren't abated or removed.

Walla Walla Town Center officials were served with the abatement suit July 22 by City Attorney Tim Donaldson. Neither Winston Bontrager, who is believed to be the principal behind the project, nor partners or associates with Walla Walla Town Center, responded by the 20-day deadline.

The order of default sets in motion what city officials hope to be a revitalization of the property since demolition and reconstruction of Walla Walla's major shopping center was abandoned in a state of rubble three years ago.
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Donaldson said this morning he planned to notify the city's Public Works Department of the ruling, so workers can begin assessing the situation as soon as possible.

"We're not going to be out there this afternoon," he said. "But it's the next step."

The results of the assessment will be used to create a scope of work for contractors to complete, Donaldson said. Any potential contracts will likely need approval from the City Council.

Donaldson did not have a cost estimate on the cleanup this morning. But in a declaration included in the numerous court filings surrounding the suit, Dean Abrams, engineer for the city, estimated the expense could be at least $200,000. He said the actual expense could vary greatly depending on what's found at the property.

Donaldson said earlier this summer the city needs to be careful about how much improvement is made. "One of the things we're trying to balance here is how much do we go in and do things which improve their value and have them take benefit," he said last month. "We're not going to put the public in a position where the public is (financing) their holding costs."

The order of abatement is essentially a lien on the property. Once the cleanup takes place, Walla Walla Town Center could ultimately write the city a check for the cost and continue to own the property. If owners don't pay for the abatement, a sale of the property could be forced. But even if Walla Walla Town Center pays for the abatement, it may not necessarily resume redevelopment.

Representatives of the limited liability company have said financial problems over the last three years are the reason for the property's abandonment. Just months after the demolition of the shopping center and construction of a new open-air shopping destination began in 2008, contractors walked off the job because they hadn't been paid.

In subsequent interviews over the next few months, Jason Bontrager, the son of Winston Bontrager and manager of the redevelopment at the time, said Walla Walla Town Center failed to secure all the financing that was needed for the property.

Since then various investors affiliated with the project, including Winston and Jason Bontrager, have been accused of financial improprieties related to other projects. In August 2010, the two as well as a third person involved with their real estate development firm had been suspected by the IRS of failing to report nearly $25 million in income from development projects on the west side of the state.

Another person previously identified as an investor in the Walla Walla redevelopment project is Michael Mastro, an 86-year-old real estate magnate who was pushed into one of Washington's largest bankruptcies two years ago. Mastro has since failed to comply with a bankruptcy judge's orders. Officials have been unable to locate him and his wife.

As recently as July 22 when Donaldson served Winston Bontrager at his Bellevue office, the developer continued to say financing was in the works for the Walla Walla project and that he intended to complete the revitalization.

Donaldson said he tried to give Bontrager every chance for a response to the abatement suit. He even took his cell phone into the courtroom this morning -- to Schacht's chagrin -- in case a last-minute call from Bontrager came.

Donaldson said securing the property will be among the highest initial priorities.

The ruling allows the city to "demolish, raze, destroy, obliterate, erase, crush, eliminate, cut, trim, sever, extract, excavate, dig out, take down, take away, disconnect, detach, disassemble, break up, mow, cover, pave, paint over, wash off, sandblast, remove, spray, clean, plough under, burn, bury, discard, transport, dump, deposit at a landfill, fence, fill, close or secure any of the nuisances declared and adjudged in these proceedings."

Furthermore, the city and its officers are authorized to "permanently or temporarily alter, modify or change" the property.

Terry McConn contributed to this report.

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