|By Kimberly Pierceall, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 19, 2005 - For 20 years, debt, bankruptcies, lawsuits and a national calamity have thwarted Mark Bragg's plans to build a $400 million golf resort along the road leading to the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.
This could be Bragg's year.
Bragg has paid off his outstanding bonds and debts and refinanced the project, he said. He expects to break ground on his Shadowrock resort within the year.
"It's the objective I came here for," he said. "I can't give up."
The Sierra Club has no intention of giving up either.
For several years, the local Tahquitz Group chapter of the Sierra Club and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have taken Bragg to court. They say an endangered peninsular bighorn sheep herd frequents the Shadowrock area and that development would kill them off.
Terry Kilpatrick, a lawyer who represented the Sierra Club in previous Shadowrock cases, said that parasites in the golf course and increased car traffic could kill the sheep -- a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
"We're totally opposed to the project in its entirety," said Jeff Morgan, the vice chair for the local Sierra Club's conservation committee.
Morgan said the group would likely challenge any city permits when Bragg chooses a construction date.
"We'll be waiting," he said.
Bragg started buying up parcels of land at the entrance to Palm Springs in 1984 when he decided a tennis resort would be a guaranteed moneymaker. But times and tastes changed, and the Coachella Valley became a haven for golf.
He spent seven years buying land to make one big golf course. In 1992, he moved from Washington, D.C., to Palm Springs. Two years later, he had secured city entitlements and cleared the planning stages.
"We spent a fortune on trying to make sure we were doing this all right," he said.
He waited for the California real estate market to heat up. By 1997, with help from a $15 million municipal bond through the California Desert Public Finance Authority and city approval, he was ready to build a public golf course and resort.
Then came the lawsuits.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed a suit claiming that the project threatened bighorn sheep, and the Tahquitz Group asked the court to demand a new environmental impact report. Both times the court ruled in Bragg's favor.
With the cases behind him, Bragg had secured a big-name resort developer by early 2001.
Then 9-11 hit shattering the U.S. economy, and with it Bragg's chances to finance his project.
"Our whole plan collapsed," he said. "It was a disaster for three years afterward."
Bragg had bought the Marquis Resort in downtown Palm Springs and was expecting it to be a financial boost that could support his Shadowrock project. But the hotel went bankrupt, and Bragg started owing interest on his municipal bond. He was treading water, he said.
Last fall, Bragg refinanced the project and paid off his debts, including the Marquis bankruptcy.
His plans were put on hold again until city residents voted down a measure on the March 8 ballot that would have restricted development in Shadowrock's vicinity.
"Every finance organization on the planet knew about Measure B," he said. The measure's defeat "opened the flood gates," to investment.
He now has a $20 million equity investment to move forward with the project, he said.
Doug Holland, the city's attorney, said there is also pressure on Bragg to start construction this year because the development agreement between the city and Bragg expires in 2006.
As for impending lawsuits, Holland said he doesn't foresee anything on the legal horizon. "From the city's perspective, there's nothing more to be done," he said.
"It's a well planned project," said Gary Wayne, the city's planning department director. "It provides not only the resort and the golf but some upper-end housing. I think it's going to be a big benefit for the city -- not only the revenues, but the tax base as well."
Bragg said he's in negotiations with a hotel developer for a 105-room five-star boutique hotel on site. Once construction starts, he said it would take five years and about 3,000 construction workers to complete the project.
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