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Developer and Borough Settle Dispute Over Start of Hotel Construction
Clearing Way for $60 million Wrightstown, Pennsylvania Project to Move Forward

By Edward Colimore, The Philadelphia InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Mar. 29, 2010--A $60 million project that promises to dramatically change the look of Wrightstown has been cleared to move forward more than two months after a dispute between the borough and developer threatened to derail it.

The council voted unanimously last week to rescind a stop-work order, clearing the way for construction of Burlington County College offices and classrooms and a Lourdes Health System treatment facility.

The borough and the developer, Saylors Pond Redevelopment L.L.C., had disagreed over when construction would begin on an 80- to 120-room hotel, a chief element in Patriot's Way-Wrightstown Center, the proposed downtown near a busy gate to Fort Dix.

Wrightstown pushed Saylors Pond to move quickly on the hotel. But the developer wanted to complete the buildings for Lourdes and the college first because they are the anchor tenants. That prompted the borough's stop-work order.

The Borough Council "stands firm on the hotel being constructed in the very first project phase," Mayor Tom Harper wrote to the developer in December.

The hotel would provide much-needed rooms for visitors to the military base and complement retail and office space planned for the center, where construction is set to begin in the summer. The initial building is expected to open next March.

"There's nothing in the agreement that dictates the order of construction," said William M. Tambussi, attorney for Saylors Pond, who attended a meeting with the mayor to help resolve the differences.

The stop-work order jeopardized the project and risked the loss of the main tenants "for no reason," Tambussi said. It also left the borough open to expensive litigation, he added.

"If that was an attempt to bully Saylors Pond, it didn't work. . . . That will not work with sophisticated businesspeople."

The area's shortage of hotel rooms helped inspire the proposed downtown renewal, said Harper, who owns a gas station across from the site. "But the contract doesn't say they have to build it first," he said.

"We will live up to our contractual obligations, and if they don't do what they're supposed to do, we will take [the project] back and find someone else.

"I don't want to get in a war in the courts that just spends money on lawyers. I want the work done."

The project "just needs tweaking," said Borough Solicitor Nicholas Costa. "Everything is ready to go . . .

"I think [the developers] panicked because of the downturn in the economy and tried to pull back on the scheduling of things," he said. "We know the economy is not great, but this is a viable project."

Costa said the hotel should be the priority. Those with business at the base "are using hotels in Philadelphia and Bordentown," he said.

Most of the pre-construction hurdles for the center have been cleared.

The site set for the redevelopment was once a business strip of bars, a dry cleaner, a cab stand, an insurance office, record and liquor stores, and barber, pawn, and beauty shops.

The 1.2-square-mile town has been host to thousands of draftees and recruits from World War I to the Persian Gulf War. But many of its shops closed in the 1980s and '90s after the fort lost its basic-training role and repeatedly faced closure.

The establishment last year of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and the massive federal investment of hundreds of millions of dollars there brought more stability to the borough of 800.

The Wrightstown Center is part of a wave of planned and current construction projects on or near the 60-square-mile installation. More than 42,000 air personnel, soldiers, Marines, Coast Guard members, civilians, and their families live and work in and around it.

The dispute between the borough and the developer over the Wrightstown project "was a bump in the road," Costa said. "We just want to get the feeling these guys are serious."

Added Harper: "I'm happy that we're back on track again."

Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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Copyright (c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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