Potential Maranatha investor gets chilly reception in Richmondville
RICHMONDVILLE A man willing to spend money to bring the defunct Maranatha Family Center back to life was presented with a “laundry list” of needs from the Richmondville Town Board on Tuesday.
The $5.3 million, 85,000-square-foot athletic center on Route 7 was built with the help of state and federal financing and opened about 11 months ago. But with few customers heading in to exercise, the business fell behind on its bills and closed in September after its power was shut off.
Da-lai Wu, of New York City, has been making a 180-mile trip to Richmondville since July exploring the possibility of investing in the business.
Wu said he’s been involved in managing professional tennis players and an investment opportunity for another athletic center downstate fell through. So he became interested in the Maranatha Family Center’s plight, and he believes he can help put it back in operation.
Wu, who wants to serve as an “equity investor,” would risk his own money to clear up the bills owed by Maranatha. And he envisions expanding the facility with outdoor tennis courts.
Wu explained his motivation: He put both his children through college and they studied liberal arts. Both are working part-time and Wu said getting the Maranatha center up and running would give them an opportunity to gain some management experience running a facility.
He drew a cool reception Tuesday morning in the Richmondville firehouse, where a crowd of about 80 people gathered for the special meeting.
The Richmondville Town Board’s role at this point — were the town to be interested in seeing the facility back in business — would be to sign off on a waiver from the state. Under the waiver, the state would agree not to seek reimbursement from the town for money the state invested in the project. The town currently has no financial stake in the matter.
But Richmondville Town Attorney Marvin Parshall Jr. read a lengthy list of issues the town believes have to be cleared up before the town would sign off on the waiver. For starters, the town wants to know if other lenders, such as private banks, are going to approve the deal. Parshall said the town also wants to know if economic development agencies, including the Schoharie County IDA, are going to be made whole.
“We would like to see assurances from those so that we know that everybody’s on board,” Parshall said. But he did not say why this is so important to the town, which has no financial stake in the Maranatha Family Center.
The town also wants to know if there’s been any damage to the building since the power’s been off.
There’s an audit that has to be completed to comply with federal regulations, Parshall said. The audit costs $20,000, and the town already agreed with Maranatha founder Stella McKenna that Maranatha would cover that cost, Parshall said. “We are still waiting for that $20,000,” he told Wu.
Parshall said another issue that has to be “cleared up” is $75,000 in federal economic development money that went into buying land for the center. That transaction took place before the town hired Orion Management to help coordinate the disbursement of funds, Parshall said, so the paperwork has to be detailed for the consulting firm.
McKenna, who attended the meeting, said the town and its agents took care of all that funding.
“I have not had involvement in being able to know which goes where ... so how they managed it and what was the amount, I wouldn’t even know,” she said. “We didn’t disburse any of that money.”
Many of the issues read out to Wu — such as getting the power bill paid or the obligations to other entities — don’t involve the town at all, a point Wu made before asking if Tuesday’s meeting was a display of how business is done in Richmondville.
Wu came to Tuesday’s meeting with the understanding the waiver from New York state was all that was needed to move forward.
“That was the only thing that you guys said was a problem, as opposed to your whole laundry list that you have in front of you that you just read to everybody ... that was not discussed any time that you discussed it with me,” he said.
Wu said in order to get involved in the project, he needs to know all the details the Town Board voiced Tuesday, roughly three months after he began investigating the opportunity.
“Number two, that I know, moving forward, that the business atmosphere, doing business here in Richmondville, is not going to be as difficult as you make it,” he said.
Town Supervisor Richard T. Lape told Wu the town has planning and zoning regulations and those rules have to be followed. Wu said he’s familiar with zoning but not with working in an environment like what he’s seen in Richmondville. “This isn’t an atmosphere where it makes it easy to do business,” he said.
Residents at the meeting offered grunts and guffaws periodically as the issues were discussed. But no one said what worried them about Wu returning the defunct athletic facility to active use.
State Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, called on the crowd and officials to consider the opportunity that was being presented.
“I think, as a board, as a community, we have to take that deep breath and say, are we better off with another investor coming in or are we better off with an empty building with no heat or electricity. I think that’s the question before us,” he said. “If we can have a lifeline here with an infusion of private dollars into our community and get this back on track, I say that’s a positive.”
Wu said after the meeting he planned to continue working towards the goal of getting the center re-opened, despite the frosty reception he got Tuesday.