CentrePointe discussion gets heated at city hall

bfortune@herald-leader.comMay 6, 2009 

A defiant Dudley Webb chastised the Urban County Council on Tuesday for carping about his CentrePointe project, saying the fate of the delayed development's funding would be known in the next 60 to 90 days.

In a lengthy prepared statement, Webb also made public a letter of support from the proposed development's main tenant, J.W. Marriott, and said he has been unfairly treated by the press, particularly the Lexington Herald-Leader, and Vice Mayor Jim Gray.

"This became a cause célèbre for editorial writers, columnists, bloggers, public officials, rumormongers and others," Webb said, adding that he will not "continue to respond to this negativism."

In turn, Gray accused Webb of misleading the city about the $250 million project's financing.

"In my view, it is unconscionable and regrettable that our city has been hoodwinked," Gray said.

Webb denied the charge. "We didn't hoodwink anybody. Each step of the way throughout this project, we've believed everything we have told you."

After the heated exchange, several council members jumped to Webb's defense. "I don't like what I have seen today," Councilman Julian Beard said. "To have you down here as a whipping boy embarrasses me."

Webb, developer of the proposed high-end hotel and condominium project on West Main Street, appeared before the council at the request of Mayor Jim Newberry to answer questions about the stalled project.

Webb revealed last month that a key investor, whose name has not been revealed, died last fall.

Webb said Tuesday that he expects the estate of the financier, who died in September, to be settled in the next 60 to 90 days and that heirs will uphold the $250 million obligation that the investor signed to fund CentrePointe.

He said his company signed the agreement with the unnamed investor on June 9, 2008, before the collapse of financial markets in October.

Webb said he was "as optimistic as ever," but he acknowledged that he could not guarantee a positive outcome.

Still, he emphasized that J.W. Marriott remains supportive of the project. "We are excited about the development of a J.W. Marriott Hotel as a key component of this mixed-use development," wrote Thomas D. Papelian, Marriott's senior vice president for hotel development, in a letter dated May 4.

Webb urged patience.

"Let's see what happens," he said. "Then we can talk about whether we can sod the block or seed the block, backfill the block or do whatever."

Gray and others have suggested that Webb fill the sunken site with dirt and cover it with grass until construction begins.

Gray criticized Webb for publicly stating last summer that funding for the project was secure and that footers would come out of the ground in December. As recently as February, Webb said the project was going to start in two weeks.

"Now here we are in May, and we still don't know" when construction might start, Gray said.

Gray also asked the developer if he had applied for a building permit, then answered his own question, saying he had checked with building inspectors and one had not been issued for CentrePointe.

"In Lexington, typically that takes six months," Gray said.

Gray later asked Webb to give updates to the council every two weeks. After discussion among council members, Newberry said Webb will inform the council "when something of note happens."

If anything, Webb said, he already has provided too much information to the public about CentrePointe.

Webb said he had no obligation, "legal or otherwise," to discuss the financing plan or source of funding for his project.

He said CentrePointe is a private development, not unlike a development over the top of the downtown Transit Center proposed by Trammell Crowe, "which has taken longer to get going than everyone thought."

"Nobody is screaming about these projects that are not yet proceeding," he said. "Unforeseen things happen, but this doesn't make their sponsors ... villains or charlatans as many have suggested in reference to us."

Webb also suggested that community leaders had initially been supportive of Centre Pointe during closed-door conversations, but that they later "turned" on him.

In particular, Webb said, he called Herald-Leader publisher Timothy M. Kelly before the project was publicly announced to tell him what he proposed. Webb said Kelly described the development "as the most important project in the history of Lexington."

Kelly said Tuesday that he has told many people "that the block in question is the most important block in downtown, that what happens there will largely determine the future of downtown Lexington and that I hoped to see something really great happen on it."

Still, he said, the newspaper "has properly questioned the design, scale and viability of the project along with the secretive financing, which has now become a central issue."

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