The Low Road

Hazelwood officials cast their lot with the developer of a controversial project in the flood-prone Missouri Bottoms. Their gamble is tearing the North County community apart.

Two council members, Peg C. Lampert and Jeanette M. Eberlin, went beyond just talking about the project with their neighbors: They solicited voters to sign a counterpetition to withdraw their names from the original one.

Another council member, Robert M. Aubuchon, accepted a $50 campaign contribution on March 1 from Chapman, one of the partners in Tristar, according to campaign-finance records. The finance report lists Chapman as "self employed."

But this donation is a pittance compared with the amount Tristar bestowed on the Citizens for the Protection of the Future of Hazelwood. In a letter to the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners, an attorney for the ad hoc committee stated that the committee was formed "to oppose certain referendum and initiative propositions being put forth in the city of Hazelwood, Missouri." As of April 7, Tristar — the committee's sole contributor — had given more than $9,800 to the cause.

The treasurer of the Citizens to Protect the Future of Hazelwood is recorded as Donald E. Young Sr., according to county election-board records. Young is the president of the Hazelwood Industrial Development Authority. Farquharson appointed him to that position, and the City Council approved the appointment. The mayor, with the council's approval, also appointed Young to the Hazelwood TIF Commission, which recommended granting $17.2 million in TIF to Tristar for its Park 270 development.

Young did not return telephone messages. Asked whether he considered the $9,800 donation appropriate, Chapman, one of the developers, says: "People ask us for money all the time. Am I supposed to publish a list of people that I give money to every week?"

The Hazelwood Industrial Development Authority appears to have had a long-standing interest in developing the Missouri Bottoms. In 1994, the agency donated $10,000 to a Hazelwood campaign committee that supported annexing the area. After several years and court fights, the city of Hazelwood completed the annexation in June 1995. On July 6, 1995, Diversified Holdings Corp. acquired a 37-acre tract of land north of Highway 370 for $400,000 — in the area that later became part of Hazelwood's TIF district. The owner of Diversified Holdings is Rodney Thomas, another partner in Tristar. In 1996, another of Thomas' companies, Landmax Inc., bought approximately 148 acres for $2.3 million in the yet-to-be designated TIF district.

In short, companies controlled by Thomas acquired 185 acres — more than 40 percent of Hazelwood's future TIF district — within a year of the area's being annexed. And two years later, Thomas' new company, Tristar, became the designated developer of the TIF district.

Rodney Thomas started his construction company in 1972, the year after he graduated from Hazelwood High School. By 1998, Thomas Development had grown into a real-estate empire. The company changed its name to Tristar last year. Tristar is responsible for developing some of the largest business parks in the area, including the 2,700-acre Gateway Commerce Center near Edwardsville, Ill. Chapman left Perkinson Realty Group to join the firm. The other partner is Michael Towerman, a real-estate attorney and former general counsel for Midland Group. Midland put together the St. Louis Marketplace on Manchester Avenue in the city of St. Louis, which was one of the first TIF projects in the area. Towerman and Thomas together run dozens of corporations from the same address in Earth City.

Even though Tristar has managed to acquire sales options on most of the remaining parcels of land that it needs for its Hazelwood TIF project, the deal is far from done. One tract that has eluded the developers is jointly owned by members of the Vasquez and Teson families. Three of those family members have filed a lawsuit challenging the right of the city to condemn their property for a private development.

Although Hazelwood assistant city manager Owens now says that he does not believe that eminent domain will be needed to carry out the TIF project, it is clear that he discussed using the condemnation process with the developer. In an interoffice memorandum stamped "confidential," Owens informed the TIF commission, the mayor and council on Oct. 13, 1998, of the status of negotiations between Tristar and the landowners. In the memo, Owens wrote: "Mr. Chapman expressed that he wants to avoid condemnation, and will pay higher prices if the TIF Commission wants to include that as a TIF expense. However, his concern is that even if higher offers are made, one or two of these owners may still not agree to sell. In those cases, condemnation (or the power to use it) may be necessary."

One landowner who has changed her mind about the development is sod farmer Linda Schroeder. Her property abuts the land that is proposed for the development. Last year she told us: "I don't think Hazelwood has any right to come here and demand this property that's been in our family for five generations and only give us peanuts." Now Schroeder says the same thing about the Yellow Ribbon Committee, which she helped form. She accuses Steinbach of butting into the affairs of the landowners by filing the lawsuit to stop the TIF project. "As far as we're concerned," says Schroeder, "we feel that the Hazelwood City Council has done everything within its power to protect the people and also the developer."

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