Longform

FIFE'S VASSALS REBEL

Shopkeepers at the Camelback Esplanade--the jewel in the crown of developer-turned-governor J. Fife Symington III--are willing to admit the newly elected Arizona leader may be a good politician. But they insist he is a lousy landlord.

They've endured two years of anemic business traffic through the Esplanade's twin towers and what they say is a lackadaisical attitude by the Symington Company toward managing and promoting the complex. Now, the merchants are angry about what they say is a dramatic increase in rental fees.

Earlier this month, Symington presented store owners with bills calling for hikes in rent by as much as a third. The added fees, which could amount to thousands of dollars every month for some businesses, are to pay for the Esplanade's outside lighting, water, janitorial service and management costs. John McLaughlin, the owner of the Esplanade's Biltmore Floral and Gift, calls the increases "a real burden."

"I'm going to have my lawyer take a good look at all this," he says.
While most merchants acknowledge that the Symington Company is probably allowed to charge the extra rent under the terms of its leases, they question the necessity and timing of the hikes, which they say are unusual.

"Some of these things you just have to wonder about," says one merchant, who pleaded for anonymity. "For instance, they are charging us $28,000 for `building maintenance and repair.' But there is no evidence that they are doing much of anything around here."

In fact, some shopkeepers say, the upkeep and management of the facility have been substandard.

"It took them two years to put benches for people to sit on out here," complains the merchant. "For what we are paying, the management of this complex has been very poor."

A shop owner who has been at the Esplanade since its opening in 1989 asks why Symington decided to begin charging the extra fees now.

"They say they could have charged us all this from the beginning," she says, "but you will notice that they didn't. They waited until after the election to hike the rent, using these built-in--but never before collected--fees as an excuse.

"It makes you wonder if they are hurting for money."
During his campaign for governor, Symington's just-say-no approach to discussing his financial affairs--combined with the failure of two of his developments and other reported fiscal woes--led to speculation that the self-proclaimed business dynamo was actually slipping into a financial abyss. Symington has repeatedly denied that any of his investments are in peril, but has refused to talk about them.

One of the Esplanade's towers is still largely empty, as are some of the governor's other large projects--again fueling suspicion that his development empire is cash-poor.

John Arrotta, the property manager for the Camelback Esplanade, wouldn't return calls seeking comment about the merchant's complaints, but the shopkeepers say he has agreed to hold meetings with them to discuss their "options." In an effort to soothe the ruffled owners, the Symington Company has hired an advertising agent to help promote the facility and jump-start business. But the merchants say that isn't good enough.

After meeting privately among themselves last week, some say they may retain an accountant or lawyer to "go over the books" at the Esplanade to confirm exactly what the extra rental fees are being spent on, and plan to press company officials for "more favorable terms."

"You know," one merchant wryly notes, "our governor, in his infinite wisdom, was quoted a few weeks ago as saying his philosophy is that when times are bad for him as a developer, he just renegotiates his loans or leases.

"Now we will find out if he realizes that cuts both ways."--

"They waited until after the election to hike the rent."

The merchants may retain an accountant or lawyer to "go over the books" at the Esplanade.