Bob's Hope

After a decade of legal battles, the unsinkable Robert Burns is once again shaping his dream metropolis of Sun Valley

So, now, in what may be the strangest twist in the Sun Valley saga, the American government and its taxpayers are benefiting from Burns' success in projects such as Sun Valley.

Still, not everyone is happy. Gillenwater, for one, is still irritated that Burns and his investors got the Sun Valley land from Citibank, out from under his own group.

Now, Citibank is apparently lending Phoenix Holdings II money for the Sun Valley project, even though Burns defaulted on the $12 million loan from the bank.

Paolo Vescia
The Burnses' parties of the mid- and late 1980s were the political place to be. From left, Paige Burns, conservative icon William F. Buckley, Burns associate Joe Adams, John Teets, former CEO of Dial Corporation, and Robert Burns.
The Burnses' parties of the mid- and late 1980s were the political place to be. From left, Paige Burns, conservative icon William F. Buckley, Burns associate Joe Adams, John Teets, former CEO of Dial Corporation, and Robert Burns.

Tom Belin, who was in charge of the Sun Valley land for Citibank, says: "We now have a lending relationship with the entity that holds that dirt. Given that, it would not be prudent for us to talk about that relationship."

"Can you imagine owing millions and being treated like that by a bank?" Gillenwater says. "That doesn't happen for your average human. To me, it's still just absolutely amazing."

Joe Blanton came to Buckeye in 1997 as the town's planning director. At a town council meeting in late summer 1998, Hull and the town council dismissed the town manager. Hull then asked Blanton to stand up before the council.

"They said I was now acting town manager," Blanton says as he leans back in his chair in his office in Buckeye's town hall. "From that point on, I was working 60 hours a week."

And those were the good old days.

Because in March, Blanton and the town started getting bombarded with the first drafts of several community master plans. Within a month, Blanton and the town were confronted with several thousand pages of information laying out a new metropolis of more than 600,000 people.

So now he works 80 hours a week.

In fact, the flood was building up months before in the offices of Lyle Anderson, SDI, Stardust, Phoenix Holdings II and Hancock. The Citizens Growth Management Initiative, Proposition 202, was making its way onto the ballot in Arizona. And it seemed to be very popular. And as developer lawyers pored over the wording of the initiative, they began to believe it could drive a stake through the heart of North Buckeye.

Alarms went off. As developers and builders mobilized a massive anti-202 campaign, law firms such as Gallagher and Kennedy quietly fired off lengthy and detailed memos advising their clients to move as quickly as possible to do as much as possible to grandfather their projects before Proposition 202 reached Arizona's voters on November 7.

For most with land in north Buckeye, that meant getting a community master plan through both the planning board and the town council.

And all of sudden, several longtime enemies were now working together like a well-oiled machine.

"I guess money heals all wounds," Gillenwater says.

And for sure, there is money to be made in Sun Valley.

"Look, somebody is going to make a billion dollars out there," Ronson says. "It will happen."

Robert Burns is slowing down a bit, or at least he's trying to. Doctors have told him he is showing signs of an insomniac workaholic -- high blood pressure and diabetes. He has told friends he'll retire in the not-too-distant future. He has claimed he wants to spend more time relaxing and enjoying life. He loves boating, reading, even playing the drums. And when he says he'll do more of these things and less business, those close to him just laugh.

"He's a heart attack waiting to happen, but he can't stop himself," says a longtime female friend who was the alleged mistress in the divorce proceedings. "He'll die doing deals."

And here is the heart of the frustration felt by those who care about him. They say he is misunderstood, and so has been wrongly villainized through the S&L and real estate crashes of the past decade.

"He didn't do anything wrong, so he stood his ground," she says. "His attackers were just people who were jealous. They're making 20 grand a year and they just want to find out where he's making more.

"But Robert loves this [Buckeye] project, it's his baby," she says. "He knows it's going to be great someday. And he knows that someday is almost here."

Ronson agrees. Even though Ronson is no longer involved with Arizona property, he says he's sure the original Burns vision will soon be realized.

"He lost everything," Ronson says. "And on top of that, he lost his wife and his family to boot. So I don't think life has been too comfortable for him. But he's a survivor. He'll make it through."

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