Clubbing Wrigley

The Wrigley Mansion's owners want to open a private restaurant with $10 memberships. But its well-connected Biltmore neighbors want no part of cafe society.

George A. Hormel II went on a shopping spree in 1992.
With a $13 million inheritance in his pocket, Hormel, whom everyone calls "Geordie," had been lured from Los Angeles to buy the 57,000-square-foot McCune Mansion in Paradise Valley. Phoenix-area real estate values were still in the dumper, and, at $3.75 million, it was a cool deal.

"It wasn't hard for me to give up L.A. for here," he says, "even though I hated desert and heat and cactus and sand and Southwest decor and all that shit. It was solely because of people here being nice."

And they were nice enough to bring him a couple more real estate deals. He leased a nightclub in downtown Scottsdale that never opened because it would cost too much to bring up to code. Then he bought the Wrigley Mansion, an elegant, whitewashed adobe home on a hilltop overlooking the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, for $2.6 million.

The Wrigley had been run as a private club since 1983, though never successfully. It had gone into receivership more than once. Hormel decided to give it another try. And although it has become a prestigious spot to stage a wedding, throw a party, or hold a meeting, although its kitchen and dining room have gotten stellar reviews, it's never broken even, let alone drawn the clientele that Hormel thought he was saving it for.

Geordie Hormel and his wife, Jamie, who now runs the couple's businesses, asked the Arizona Biltmore Estates Village Association (ABEVA), the neighborhood association that controls the area, if they could change the zoning or rewrite the use permit to allow for a restaurant open to the general public.

The discussion opened with hemming and hawing, which segued into lawyer letters, which escalated to a flurry of shrill name-calling and dubious accusations on all parts.

The neighbors said that the Wrigley Mansion was a noisy nuisance and that Geordie Hormel was just trying to recoup his own bad business losses at their expense. The Hormels said they just wanted to break even and share an architectural treasure with a city they loved.

ABEVA accused the Hormels of using their wealth and clout to influence the media, the Hormels accused ABEVA of using its wealth and clout to influence the city.

It was a Biltmore standoff, two Porsches at an intersection and neither would yield right of way.

Then the Hormels hit the accelerator and spun out of the crossroads; ABEVA picked up its cell phone and dialed the authorities.

In May of this year, Jamie Hormel told ABEVA that she planned to keep the Wrigley as a private club, except membership would only cost $10 a year, making it a de facto public restaurant. As a final money-doesn't-matter gesture, she announced that the membership dues would be donated to a charity that helps battered women.

ABEVA has retaliated by asking the City of Phoenix to yank the Wrigley's use permit, and demanding that it set standards as to what kind of membership fee constitutes a "bona fide" private club.

In short, ABEVA wants to set someone else's prices.
Not surprisingly, the city zoning official that ABEVA lobbied has nothing to say about how and whether his department can settle the dispute. But the players in this soap opera called Biltmore Place have plenty to say.

"What country do we live in that they have to decide whether it's appropriate or not?" wheezes Celeste Nichols, manager of the Wrigley Mansion Club. "There's no ordinance that says a private club has to charge this or that amount of money."

"Geordie knew what he was buying when he bought it," says Brian Zemp, attorney for ABEVA.

Geordie Hormel is heir to the meat-packing firm that makes Spam, and, some might say, a study in old-money eccentricity. He was a dashing gourmet and seducer of starlets in his youth. Now, at age 70, he would just as soon spend the day playing the piano in a tour bus parked behind his home.

His gray hair cascades over his shoulders, he wears slouchy sportscoats, shuffles around his estate in those suede boots that used to be called "Dingos." His beautiful wife Jamie is 41 years his junior, which raises eyebrows. But Hormel couldn't care less.

When he moved in to the McCune Mansion, he brought his rock 'n' roll retinue with him--engineers from the L.A. recording studio he owns, musicians down on their luck, folks who just needed a job or a place to stay. For years the house was a cultivated clutter of unpacked boxes, uninvited guests and unhurried workmen.

The Wrigley Mansion, on the other hand, was an orderly reminder of Hormel's privileged upbringing. He fussed over its restoration. And even if his clothes were informal and unpressed, he could be mildly irritated if a spoon were misplaced in a formal table setting.

Though a substantial chunk of his income flows out of a trust fund, Geordie Hormel has made his own millions in the music industry. His Village Recorder is regarded as a prestigious recording studio. He had made a fortune in the early days of television by providing soundtrack music.

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