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Taco Bell Extends Headquarters Search in O.C. : Fast food: Aggressive campaign to keep company in state may be factor. Decision expected in 'next few weeks.'

March 30, 1994|JAMES S. GRANELLI | This article was reported by Times staff writers James S. Granelli, Susan Christian and Debora Vrana. It was written by Granelli

IRVINE — Taco Bell Corp., which said it would reveal by Thursday a possible relocation of its headquarters, has instead expanded its search to include new Orange County sites and told employees that it will need a few more weeks to consider its options.

The delay came after a meeting Monday at Irvine City Hall between Taco Bell executives and members of a task force of county business leaders and local and state public officials.

The so-called red team, a nickname the Wilson Administration has given to such task forces, presented the company with its "best and final offer" of what public agencies could provide the Mexican fast-food chain in incentives and inducements, several sources said.

In addition, Gov. Pete Wilson telephoned senior corporate executives Friday and, in a long conference call, urged them to keep the company in California.

"I'm encouraged that they have delayed a decision," said Terry Hartman, president of the Irvine Chamber of Commerce. "It means they have heard some additional information that is making them do some additional thinking."

The Irvine Spectrum business park is a longtime contender for the new headquarters. But among the new locations being considered is South County land owned by the Mission Viejo Co., a development company whose executives acknowledged talks with Taco Bell but declined to comment further.

Taco Bell, which employs nearly 1,000 full-time workers and consultants at its headquarters in Irvine, also would not discuss the new sites it is considering.

The delay in its self-imposed deadline was caused by the "complexity" of the issues surrounding a possible relocation, the company said. It also said that it will continue to analyze sites in Orange County and the Dallas-Ft. Worth area before making "a final decision in the next few weeks."

The red team's full-court press to keep Taco Bell in California is part of the state's response to the growing number of companies considering fleeing the state for what they believe to be more hospitable business climates. From the state Legislature to city halls, politicians over the past year have eased tax and regulatory burdens on corporations and have become more active in promoting California's advantages.

Taco Bell's search for new quarters is a test of the willingness and efforts of local and state governments to work with business and to attract and keep major corporations. Meantime, six months of indecision have taken their toll on employees.

"It's all very annoying," said a secretary as she walked to the Taco Bell parking lot during lunch Tuesday. "They told us they still don't know if they're going to relocate--but they said that even if they do, it will be 2 1/2 years down the road."

The woman, who declined to give her name, described the uncertainty as "stressful" for Taco Bell employees. "They might only take upper-management people," she said, "so I don't know if I'd be offered the option of going to another city."

Another secretary, munching on a Taco Bell quesadilla in the employee cafeteria, agreed that being in limbo is difficult. "I have no idea what's going to happen," she said. "I'm just stunned. I have a family here, so it would be hard for us to move. And whether or not we would even want to depends on what city the company finally decides on."

The woman, who also requested anonymity, said employees are abuzz about the possible relocation. "We wouldn't be normal if we weren't all talking about it," she said.

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The fast-growing company, with 4,500 eateries nationwide, alarmed public officials as well as its own employees in September when it announced it was considering a move. It also said then that it was possible that it might remain in its 12-story mirrored building, but spokeswoman Janis Smith said last week that that statement would be "inaccurate today."

The company is looking for up to 600,000 square feet of space in a campus-like array of buildings on up to 25 acres--enough room to allow it to double in size in a few years. It currently occupies 285,000 square feet in a building near Jamboree Road and the San Diego Freeway.

Smith said last week that the company's decision will be based on "economics, transportation and, for Texas, a central location" in the nation.

Taco Bell has been looking at five sites in Orange County, including the Irvine Spectrum and sites outside the Irvine city limits, said Paul O. Brady, Irvine's city manager and a member of the red team. He said the city's effort has been to persuade the company to build on Irvine Spectrum land, the huge business park near the junction of the San Diego and the Santa Ana freeways.

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Brady would not discuss any details or identify the latest sites under consideration. Real estate sources, however, said Taco Bell is talking with the Mission Viejo Co. about vacant land it could buy from the developer. A specific site was not revealed.

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