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Investment firm wants to buy Whittier eyesore

Posted: Wednesday, February 26, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A New York investment firm has announced plans to buy an old military building in Whittier for more than $21 million dollars.

Laidlaw Global Corp. says it plans to turn the World War II-era Buckner Building into a five-star resort.

Laidlaw said shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Commission must still approve the deal.

Plans have come and gone for the abandoned, asbestos-filled building during the past 30 years, but none has come to fruition.

The Buckner, hulking eyesore often shrouded in fog, has sat exposed to the elements since the military handed the keys to the city in 1970. The building no longer has windows and adventure seekers wade through puddles in its subterranean caverns, city officials say.

Whittier officials declared the building a nuisance awhile back and told the owner, George LaMoureaux of Anchorage, to board it up, which he has yet to do, said former mayor Ben Butler. The city of Whittier was planning to foreclose on the Buckner Building this week because LaMoureaux was behind in tax payments and failed to fence off the property, said acting city manager Leonard Jones. The Buckner's assessed value on city tax rolls last year was $879,000.

The Buckner is one of two former military buildings that constitute most of Whittier. The town, a Cold War outpost 75 miles southeast of Anchorage, has a population of about 170.

The six-story Buckner Building sits on the shores of glacier-dotted Prince William Sound. The stunning natural setting and the growth of ecotourism are the big draws, Laidlaw executives say.

If the deal pans out as planned, Laidlaw executives say they will seek investors and bank financing to pump $70 million into the fortress-like building and turn it into a 476-room Ramada Plaza Hotel.

''We're well aware that Whittier is a one-man and a one-sheep town. But we're of the belief that people will want to come to this area for the bird life and the fish life,'' said Julian Edwards, the London-based chief executive of Laidlaw Properties Inc., a subsidiary.

Besides a year-round hotel and resort, Roger Bendelac, chief executive of Laidlaw Global, said the company is also considering building a convalescence facility in Whittier.

Neither he nor Edwards has been to Whittier although both plan to visit within the next few weeks, they said.

Several real estate developers in Anchorage wished Laidlaw executives well but said they doubt the hotel will ever be built. Too many ideas, including a prison, have been tried, and none has worked. Randy Kaer, a general contractor, said LaMoureaux deserves credit.

''My hat's off to the guy if he can buy that piece of junk and turn around and sell it for $21.5 million,'' Kaer said. ''Maybe I should call him up and borrow some money from him.''

LaMoureaux could not be reached for comment.

Whittier officials hadn't heard of Laidlaw's plan to buy the building. While the jobs and tax revenue a resort hotel would bring to Whittier sound superb, officials aren't getting too excited yet.

''We'll believe it when we see it,'' said Grande.

Laidlaw executives also say the deal rides on the company's legal review and their personal tour of the property.

''If this isn't the unusual jewel we want to build, we'll find another,'' Bendelac said.



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