Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Blasters, Wallace Bajjali and other things the elites thought would be good for Joplin

The City of Joplin appears to be falling into a pattern.

A small group of people who know better than anyone else what Joplin needs twists facts, brushes off informed warnings, and pushes on full speed ahead, no matter what the consequences

The city loses millions and then in an apparent effort to save face, files a lawsuit, not against the people who led us down these dark pathways, of course, but against those who this small group welcomed into the city with open arms and who then failed to live up to expectations.

It started when so-called master developer Wallace Bajjali Development Partners skipped town in the dead of night after promising Joplin the moon and the stars and delivering absolutely nothing in two and a half years.

The city filed suit against the firm and its managing partners David Wallace and Costa Bajjali. Both men resigned from Wallace Bajjali, Wallace declared bankruptcy having been responsible for only one building project- adding a swimming pool at his new home in Sugar Land, Texas, and the city won an almost meaningless judgment against Bajjali without his even being present in the courtroom.

Waiting for Bajjali to make good on his debt has just about as much of a chance of paying off as the Joplin R-8 School District receiving millions from FEMA for "errors and omissions" on fancy, high-end additions to its building projects

History is repeating itself in the case of the Joplin Blasters The city filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the Blasters owners this week in Jasper County Circuit Court, noting that the Blasters had a 20-year lease on Joe Becker Stadium with the rent set at $150,000 annually

I have no doubt the City of Joplin will win this lawsuit- and that it will never receive a dime from the Blasters.

Let's face it. Though the Blasters presented a decent team in its first season, the team had little or no chance of ever succeeding here.

The city went out of its way to attract this second rate independent baseball team, spending $5 million to renovate Joe Becker Stadium, with that money coming out of city accounts at a time when Joplin was still rebuilding from one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the United States.

So once again, it appears our city officials are taking decisive action against con artists who have ripped off the town.

And not one move has been made against these wasteful elitists who have been so ready to spend taxpayer money to turn their vision of the perfect Joplin into a reality.

This is not a vision of Joplin that began last year, the year before, or even after the Joplin Tornado. These ideas- bringing professional baseball to Joplin, attracting major entertainment acts, constructing massive retail centers, and creating a ritzy environment of loft apartments, niche shops, and a series of never-ending, freshly manicured parks, so that the leaders will never have to take a step in the poorer, rundown areas of the city- were formulated years before the tornado.

What the tornado did was to create an atmosphere in which these ideas could be implemented through the use of taxpayer money. Even as the people of Joplin worked to dig out from under the devastation of May 22, 2011, many of them worried about how they would get through day to day, far too many of them mourning family members or  friends who died or suffered injuries, this small group of unelected leaders was far more concerned about using the tornado in an effort to reshape Joplin, to make all of their dreams come true.

Even as volunteers came from around the world to help Joplin rebuild,the rebuilding process was the furthest thing from the minds of these elitists The hard work and the heavy lifting could be handled by others Their focus was on loftier goals than simply putting lives back together.

When FEMA suggested to Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rob O'Brian that a citizens group needed to be formed to deal with the tornado aftermath, he did not have to look far to know who to invite

In his book Miracle of the Human Spirit, former City Manager Mark Rohr said that the group that he and O'Brian put together was one that had already been meeting. Others, many of them like-minded, were added to cover every area that these people deemed important and then public meetings were held.

A big deal was made of the democratic way in which these early meetings were conducted After all, everyone's ideas were accepted and posted.

Amazingly, the only ideas that made it through the process were those that had been concocted before the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team (CART) was created. The difference is that now the ideas had the stamp of approval of a citizens panel created to put Joplin back on the right path after the tornado.

CART might as well have been elected since the city's elected leaders, the Joplin City Council, stepped aside and let the group make multi-million dollar decisions with the people's money.

Rohr, O'Brian, CART leader Jane Cage and the rest of the group fell sway to the siren song of Texas con artist David Wallace and pushed the idea of a master developer, something that was never needed.

Within weeks of the tornado, Wallace became a fixture in Joplin, telling O'Brian and the others that he could deliver all of the things they wanted and even more.

Wallace was the first to mention the idea of the city hiring a master developer and even created the specifications for the request for proposals, sending them in an e-mail to the Chamber of Commerce leader, that O'Brian conveniently deleted, according to the state audit.

The audit and CART documents revealed exclusively in the September 15, 2015 Turner Report, showed that the fix was in for Wallace Bajjali despite the firm's lengthy record of bankruptcies, fraud allegations, and SEC investigations.

A number of people, included among them CART member Clifford Wert and TAMKO Chairman David Humphreys, warned against the hiring of Wallace Bajjali, noting its problematic history. Nevertheless, CART recommended the firm and the City Council, except for the council members who sat on the CART evaluation panel, never saw the proposals that were submitted by four other companies seeking the master developer position. One council member who did serve on that team, current Mayor Michael Seibert gave Wallace-Bajjali a rating that was far above the ratings for other firms, but wasn't able to tell the state auditors why. It should be noted that Seibert still offered strong support for Wallace Bajjali in an interview with a Texas television station that took place two years after Wallace Bajjali was hired, at a time when it was clear that the company was never going to deliver on its promises. Seibert said people don't understand the incredible amount of work it takes for a master developer to get projects off the ground.

A Joplin Globe article showed that though Mark Rohr gave the City Council a report saying that the complaints against Wallace Bajjali were minor in 2012, Rohr, and at least two City Council members, Seibert and Mike Woolston, were completely aware of the firm's sketchy background, as was the Chamber's O'Brian. Jane Cage told the Globe the following:

During the course of reference checking, we were given an exhaustive background report on Wallace Bajjali prepared by the city of Amarillo in their developer search. The report took into consideration the SEC and bankruptcy question about Wallace Bajjali. After exploring the issues, they made the decision to choose Wallace Bajjali.
Information from that same exhaustive background check by the City of Amarillo was featured in the April 11, 2014 Turner Report, The report included detailed information about seven bankruptcies and fraud and racketeering allegations made against either Wallace or Wallace Bajjali.

All of these were ignored and the city ended up facing strong suggestions of criminal activity in the state audit, with much of that involving Wallace Bajjali's connections to local developer Charles Kuehn and Woolston.

With the people who led us down the Wallace Bajjali path leading the way, the message that was sent to the public was that it was time to "move forward" and it would do no good to revisit the sins of the past- especially when those sins could be traced back to those who were looking to create their own Joplin.

Woolston was allowed to quietly resign from the City Council, and all blame shifted to Wallace Bajjali as if Wallace was operating in a vacuum here instead of using CART to land the lucrative master developer contract and then hiring some of the same Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce employees who had helped him along the way

The odor that emanated from CART and the Chamber of Commerce's dealings with Wallace Bajjali was rivaled only by the method in which professional baseball returned to Joplin.

O'Brien and Rohr were doing everything they could to bring a minor league baseball team to Joplin even before the tornado.

The Loraine Report featured testimony from former Chamber employee Gary Box, who later took a job with Wallace Bajjali after helping bring the firm here, as noted in the January 12, 2016 Turner Report:

Box told Loraine former City Manager Mark Rohr and former Parks and Recreation Director Chris Cotten contacted officials with the American Association and convinced the league president, Miles Wolf, to come to Joplin in 2010 to talk about the possibility of bringing a team here.

"We gave him the greatest dog-and-pony show we could," Box said, "but he was honest with us and said, 'Guys, Joplin is a great baseball community. I think we could definitely have a team here and succeed, but this facility, this ballpark doesn't cut it.' "

From that point on, there was never any doubt that somehow the taxpayers would end up footing the bill for  a multi-million dollar renovation of Joe Becker Stadium and that is exactly what happened:

Wallace told members of CART (Citizens Advisory Recovery Team) he could deliver everything they wanted and one of the things they wanted was a baseball team for Joplin.

Box told Loraine that Wallace said the owner of the Amarillo Gold Sox was interested in putting a team in Joplin. This would have been a new team for the owner and not the Gold Sox. But no deal would be made without the guarantee of a new stadium.

Joe Becker Stadium never figured in David Wallace's plans since there was no way he could leverage any money for his company out of that. Like all of Wallace Bajjali's proposals, no movement was taking place and during that time Cotten was in contact with the owners of the El Paso Diablos.

The Diablos deal would not require a new stadium, just an overhaul of Joe Becker. And for that to happen, the city would have to spend millions. In order to make that possible, it had to be shown that an independent baseball team could succeed here.

The Chamber made sure the Joe Becker renovations took place by cooking the books on a feasibility study that showed Joplin would be able to support a professional baseball team.

From the October 12, 2015 Turner Report:

The study, which was commissioned by the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce and was done by the Economic Strategy Center of Lansing, Michigan, based National Community Development Services, relies heavily on prior research that was done by Minor League Baseball MiLB and was primarily based on teams that were affiliated with major league baseball.

The study shows that no such survey was taken concentrating on independent teams such as the Joplin Blasters and their opponents in the American Association.

Those calculations led to estimates of 3,500 attendance at each game, a number that was twice the turnout for the Blasters' inaugural season.

With the attendance diminished by that much, naturally the estimated totals for vending sales, parking, and other game-related activities were also far lower than the original estimates.

And while many Joplin area residents enjoyed watching Blasters games, the Chamber's overly optimistic assessment of the impact minor league baseball would have on Joplin could also impact the millions of future dollars the study said the city would receive via loft apartments and retail in the area of Joe Becker Stadium.

The study indicated the city would benefit from having two restaurants, office space, 16 loft apartments, and a couple of retail stores, with an initial benefit coming from the construction.

The idea that a lower level professional baseball team was going to spark the creation of a renaissance area for Joplin was laughable from the outset and the notion that it was going to be made possible by the Moe, Larry, and Curly owners of the Blasters was quite a stretch of the imagination.

They had done nothing of the kind during their tenure in El Paso and there was never any reason to believe Joplin would be any different.

And now the Blasters, just like David Wallace and Costa Bajjali, have put Joplin in their rear view mirrors, leaving city officials to scramble to reclaim their dignity with Don Quixote-style lawsuits while at the same time allowing those who were responsible for these continued adventures in ineptitude to keep on telling us what is best for us.

And, of course, spending our money to make it happen.


Anonymous said...

The other great Joplin "visionary" CJ Huff - as Randy has previously mentioned - has already cost the taxpayers of Joplin over 1 million dollars in legal fees (electrical subcontractor). Who knows what the final cost to taxpayers will be (when the lawsuit is finally settled).

It is very disappointing - that the Globe (community newspaper of record) - continues to "protect" these "visionaries".

Anonymous said...

I agree with every word you wrote. The only thing I can think of that you left out, was the liens and property taken by the city when the homeowners didn't remove their sidewalks, foundations, and driveways. I think they harassed over 2000 property owners and placed liens against the property of hundreds. Insurance doesn't pay to remove driveways, they are not part of the home, the city claims they are. If the city finance officer had been doing her job, and not sitting in on Building Board of Appeals meetings(to what end?), perhaps the city's own claims might have been provided by the time the auditor completed their work. Thanks to Rosenberg and Scearce for stopping what they could and getting rid of the domestic abuser Rohr.

Anonymous said...

All of this is embarrassing. How is it possible that people continue to pay for Chamber memberships?

Anonymous said...

I think we know now that Joplin is not able to support baseball at levels that cost much money - now we're stuck with a stadium that creates pressure to repeat the same mistakes

Anonymous said...

Joplin needs a downtown convention center just like all the big cities have.

And some of those light rail streetcars like Kansas City and Toronto have.

Anonymous said...

To 6:14PM....I assume you are joking. Every legitimate feasibility study, both privately and publicly funded, has reached the same conclusion on a downtown convention center...there is simply not enough of a market to support this kind of venture in Joplin. It would be the Becker Stadium/Blasters scenario all over again. In the end, it would become a tax burden on the citizens.

As for light rail streetcars...the cities you mentioned have population bases (and tax revenue bases) that are 10 times that of Joplin. I think Joplin is better off focusing on the things that are essential and necessary before venturing down the path of "wishful" thinking. Let's take care of the transportation infrastructure we currently have before we add something that will again add to the tax burden of the citizens.

Anonymous said...

How does Rob O'Brian still have a job? Great use of tax dollars, Joplin. What are they even doing with the money? Specifically, where have the millions of tax dollars that have gone to the Chamber for "Economic Development" over the years actually been spent? Has the city grown? Are there more jobs? Better jobs? Is there any evidence that the Chamber has provided any real return on investment? After these latest debacles are sorted out and the damage assessment is done I'd be shocked if the Chamber's activities have produced a positive net result. Let's do the math for the entirety of Rob's tenure. Who's willing to bet Joplin's economic development is in the red? Rob has been poorly executing economic development for decades and still the city throws money at him. This is why good people leave. This is why it's so difficult to recruit and retain great people.

Dusty Roads said...

Geez 6:14 was just being

Anonymous said...

Rob will keep his job as he represents the elite. The Chamber is about credentials, conferences, cronyism. The elites lazy leadership devastated Joplin's schools.They will continue to keep Joplin a bastion of public expenditures that are wasteful,imprudent and self serving.Whether in new schools,rebuilt parks or road projects the average tax payer gets shafted