Mitt Romney has been touring dilapidated factories and boarded up storefronts around the nation looking to bolster his argument that President Obama has wrecked the economy. But business and community leaders at the sites are not always happy with being characterized as depressed ruins.
The latest example is in California, where the presidential candidate held a press conference in North Hollywood at Valley Plaza, an empty shopping center where multiple attempts to reverse its fortunes have failed to get off the ground. Romney admitted its problems predated Obama, but nonetheless blamed him for making the recession “worse” and thus helping squash development plans at the site.
“Sadly, as we look around us at this development, we see a development that is no longer going to be a development,” he said. “The Valley Plaza development program has been scrapped in part because of the challenges of the economy.’
In fact, the mall’s current struggles have little to do with recent events and its current owners say that it absolutely will be developed in the coming months.
Valley Plaza’s troubles began in 1994, when it was badly damaged in the Northridge earthquake. Purchased by developer J.H. Snyder, attempts to redevelop the site in 1999 and 2003 stalled, well before President Obama took over or the recession even began.
The recession dealt Valley Plaza the final blow as Snyder defaulted on their loan this year and decided it was too expensive to refinance. So their creditor, iStar, owned by a major Romney donor Jay Sugarman, foreclosed on the property and shut down the struggling development push. According to Snyder, iStar’s terms were simply too expensive to continue.
Victor Veireck, president of the local Chamber of Commerce, told TPM that Romney’s account of the site was simplistic even while he agreed with his larger assessment of the national economy. He blamed a host of factors, mostly local, but none more significant than the quake.
“There’s more to Valley Plaza than just the national situation, there were other things involved and it was not a thriving plaza before the economic collapse,” Veireck said. “It was more the earthquake that — I hate to say — shook things up.”
And contrary to Romney’s assertion that development is dead at the site, iStar is working on a new investment in the location that they plan to debut in the next several months. Nor do they sound too pleased with the area’s portrayal as a helpless victim of the economy: Sugarman’s company put out a response to Romney’s press conference pledging to turn Valley Plaza into an “economic engine” through “considerable investment in a modern, quality project” at the site. The company’s stock has shot up over the last year.
Democratic City Councilman Paul Krekorian held a counter-event at the site to slam Romney for belittling the area’s ongoing “economic revitalization.”
“For Mr. Romney, Valley Plaza is just an easy backdrop for a cheap photo op,” he said in a statement. “Even as Mr. Romney is dropping in to preen for the cameras, the new owner of Valley Plaza is hard at work preparing plans for a major new development on this site - a significant long-term investment in the bright future of North Hollywood.”
iStar’s effort to highlight their development plans after Romney’s visit recalls a recent trip by Obama to an Alcoa factory in Iowa. Romney warned the site would lose jobs thanks to the National Labor Relations Board’s suit against Boeing over alleged labor violations. Alcoa, who produces material for the airline giant, told reporters that in fact their employment situation was unaffected by the case.
Romney was asked about Krekorian’s statement and iStar’s plans and told reporters that he was referring only to the recent Snyder deal that had been scrapped. Apparently undercutting his dramatization of North Hollywood’s woes, Romney declared that there was “retail vitality” in the “wonderful community,” but lamented that Valley Plaza is no longer a bustling business like it once was in the 1960s when John F. Kennedy visited.
“I’m sure there’s going to be something done here,” he said. “I’ll tell you, if I’m president, there will be something done in places around the country to put people back to work.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Romney visited an Alcoa plant in Iowa. President Obama visited the plant.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.