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California and the West

Developer Unfazed by Discouraging Words

Business: Despite opposition, he envisions an Old West-style entertainment complex in Riverside County.

May 29, 2000|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Zev Buffman's aging dream of a nostalgia-themed Wild West retail and entertainment complex in a quiet corner of Riverside County would appear to be near the end of its trail.

The Murrieta City Council came close to killing critical funding for the project earlier this month. The bond market has been indifferent and a vocal band of residents say the complex represents exactly what they fled to the Temecula Valley to get away from.

Yet Buffman, a developer and former Broadway promoter, is forging ahead.

"Until someone gives me a good reason why this exploding valley doesn't need something other than cinemas, I'm not going to quit," he declared last week.

He is already hatching plans to split the project into two phases to make it more appealing to financiers. And, saying the area has outgrown his initial concept of an Old West tourist attraction, Buffman intends to drop much of the Western theme that earned the project the financial backing of Roy Rogers' family and the name "RogersDale U.S.A.".

After watching a mock gunfight in Old Town Temecula in 1993, Buffman developed a $65-million proposal for a Western-flavored complex in the district. Along the way, the Rogers family, which had been frustrated in attempts to add attractions to the Roy Rogers museum site in Victorville, joined in.

Backed by local officials, the project ran into lawsuits and hostile residents.

So two years ago Buffman rode up the highway a piece to Murrieta, taking his plans and expanding them to a $185-million complex, including an 8,000-seat sports and entertainment arena, an outdoor music plaza, shops, hotels and theaters.

To Buffman, Murrieta's so-called Golden Triangle, between the 15 and 215 freeways in southwestern Riverside County, is the perfect place for his project. The 64 acres are within 30 miles of more than 2 million people and there are no similar venues around.

But in Murrieta, Buffman encountered some of the same ill will he found in Temecula. Local government and the business community welcomed him, but refugees from more congested parts of Southern California wanted no part of the complex.

Terry Gavitt, an elementary school teacher, moved to Murrieta a decade ago from Riverside. If she wants to attend a play or a big show, she said, she'll go to San Diego or Orange County. Build a big entertainment complex that draws huge crowds to her backyard, "then I lose my little suburb and we turn into what most of us wanted a distance from," she complained.

Concern also surfaced about the $100 million in tax-free bonds Murrieta planned to issue. Though the bonds were to be secured with revenues from the project rather than the town's general fund, some residents argued that such financial involvement was inappropriate for the fast-growing community of 43,000.

"A lot of us said, 'Whoa, this has gone too far,' " recalled opponent Denise Berge. "If [Buffman] can't sell this on Wall Street or to private investors . . . then I don't think the city of Murrieta should be involved in helping develop this piece of land."

As it turned out, the bond market didn't care if the issues were tax-free--it still wasn't interested.

That prompted a Murrieta councilman earlier this month to propose that the city rescind its financing authority for RogersDale. The motion failed on a 2-2 vote, with one councilman abstaining.

Buffman's response has been to propose a smaller version of the project requiring a $50-million tax-free bond that he believes will find buyers. An additional $30 million in private funding would be needed to build the arena, a hotel, the music plaza and about half the originally planned retail and restaurant space.

The Rogers, Buffman said, would play a smaller role in the development, which would also be renamed.

"We found that the RogersDale name creates a Western-themed park connotation. And we are not," Buffman said, insisting that even his original designs called for no more that 30% of the buildings to have a Western facade.

Roy "Dusty" Rogers Jr., son of the late singing cowboy, could not be reached for comment.

Buffman's pared-down scheme has to clear a number of hurdles. He has to reach a new agreement with the tract's owners, go back before the City Council and sell his bonds.

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