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Editorial: Airport board too slow on missed lease payments

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The firestorm that erupted when Snappy Tomato Pizza didn’t pay its rent at The Commons for a full year should have been a warning sign to any city department that collects rents.

It wasn’t. That’s disappointing.

On Jan. 1, Bettendorff, Iowa-based Bluffstone LLC missed its first $1,062 monthly lease payment to the Columbus Municipal Airport Board of Aviation Commissioners for the land on which Bluffstone has contracted to build student housing.

The project, the Villas at Columbus, proposes a two-story apartment complex on airport property near four local colleges or universities, with 112 beds in two- and four-bedroom suites. Students would pay $4,750 to $5,500 per academic year.

The expectation has been for students from IUPUC, Ivy Tech Community College, Harrison College and Purdue College of Technology to be able to live in the Villas at Columbus. Forty students have applied so far for housing there.

However, two bombshells fell during the aviation board’s May 13 meeting:

Bluffstone had not paid rent for five months.

It had no financing for the project.

This news came two months after Bluffstone said construction of the apartments was delayed by inclement weather, forcing a one-year delay in occupancy — to August 2015.

That it’s taken five months for the latest information to surface is shocking — and unfortunate.

Former Columbus Parks and Recreation Department Director Ben Wagner was informed Dec. 30 by Mayor Kristen Brown that he was being demoted to the parks marketing coordinator position. One of the main reasons the mayor cited was his failure to have effective controls in place to ensure Snappy Tomato was making payments and to be aware if any lease payments were missed.

Snappy Tomato owed $27,237.52 for 2013 monthly lease payments but eventually settled and paid about two-thirds of that amount.

For five months, the mayor, Columbus Parks and Recreation Board and Columbus City Council have been embroiled in a dispute over who is responsible for collecting lease payments and who has the authority to hire, fire and demote the city parks director. Two outside attorneys were hired for their legal opinions in an attempt to bring clarity to this acrimonious situation.

On Monday, Wagner submitted his resignation, effective May 30.

What’s ironic is that Bluffstone’s first missed payment was two days after Wagner’s demotion — and the aviation board members knew about it. They knew when Bluffstone missed the next four months, too.

Additionally, the lease doesn’t require the apartment project to be financed.

Given that the public and often tense debate over The Commons lease payments and mayoral powers was happening at the same time Bluffstone was not paying, that should have been a wake-up call for aviation board members to act quickly to resolve the matter.

Eventually, the board did the right thing.

Columbus Municipal Airport Director Brian Payne drafted a letter asking Bluffstone to pay rent and all late fees — totaling more than $7,100 — immediately.

Failure to pay would be grounds for the aviation board to cancel its contract with Bluffstone and seek another developer for the project.

Such action by the board would be appropriate, albeit several months too late.

The housing project is important to the Columbus community and its higher-education campuses. Officials need to be dealing with a reliable developer with the means to make this project a reality.

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