Everybody probably has experienced “sticker shock” at one time or another. Whether buying a home or a car or a college education, we all have known that moment when you suddenly realize something could cost much more than you anticipated.
For the people of Lake Geneva, that moment is now with the former Hillmoor Golf Course.
Lake Geneva city leaders last year decided that the right course of action when it comes to the vacant golf course property was to reject the owner’s redevelopment plan and instead force the owner to maintain a large empty field.
That is what we bought. Now, here comes the bill: $55 million.
Property owner White River Holdings LLC has slapped the city with a $55 million claim for damages related to the former golf course. The claim includes legal mumbo jumbo, but the message is pretty clear: If the city wants to preserve the status quo with the property, this is the price.
The way these things work, city officials can admit to the damages and write White River a check. Or the city can deny the claim, and then the company has the option of dragging Lake Geneva into court, where a judge or jury would decide what – if anything – the city should pay.
In calculating how big of a claim should start the process, White River seems to be reaching for maximum shock value. The total amount of $55.6 million is several times more than the $3.4 million that White River paid for Hillmoor just two years ago.
It is equal to more than $7,000 for every man, woman and child who lives in Lake Geneva.
It exceeds the amount of money needed to fund Lake Geneva’s city budget for an entire year. Actually, five years.
In other words, this cannot be serious.
The folks at White River Holdings cannot really expect to get a check for $55 million. Even if the city had a piggy bank that big, taxpayers would never stand still for spending that kind of money to ensure that a 200-acre former golf course remains a collection of weeds and puddles.
So what is the real message that White River is sending?
We could speculate that the landowner is just trying to get the city’s attention. Perhaps the company is hoping a little sticker shock will motivate the city to change course and approve the stalled redevelopment plan. Or whatever plan comes next. Or maybe the company has given up on development, and just wants to squeeze a little money out of Lake Geneva before putting the old golf course up for sale. Or walking away and leaving us with a 200-acre eyesore.
It is anybody’s guess. White River is not saying much, except that the city could settle this now for the exorbitant sum of $55 million.
Clearly, we are not going to recommend that the city write White River a check for $55 million. Not even $55.
But what this claim for damages has done is open a channel of communication. It has created an opportunity – a requirement, really – for both sides to engage with each other. The conversation might start with whether anyone truly owes $55 million. But where it goes from there could lead to something far more realistic and constructive: compromise.
We urge city officials to deny this claim in a way that avoids a lawsuit, by reaching out to White River Holdings with a sincere offer to negotiate. In turn, we urge White River to stop making crazy demands and instead to demonstrate a good-faith interest in working with Lake Geneva.
So far, both sides seem to have staked out extreme positions: The city with its authority to block White River’s business plan, and White River with its ability to posture for an impossible payback.
Somewhere in the middle is a common ground where neither side tries to shock the other, but both work together as partners to end the gamesmanship and get something done. We urge both sides to move in that direction.