A proposal to buy Center Mall moved closer to reality Friday when City Council members unanimously accepted the concept.
The $14.6 million purchase agreement for all the buildings associated with the mall was among a list of items approved by the City Council Friday afternoon and the FISTA Development Trust Authority Friday morning as the groups worked on their goal of transforming Central Mall — beginning with the former Sears department store — into a complex for defense contractors.
FISTA (FIRES Innovation Science and Technology Accelerator) has been a dream for a variety of city leaders and economic development officials for years. Efforts to create a home for the defense contractors who work with Fort Sill and the two U.S. Army Cross-Functional Teams housed there have ramped up in recent months with the creation of the FISTA Development Trust Authority in August and the announcement that economic development entities had dropped the idea of using the old Fairmont Creamery and now were focused on Central Mall. Council action in September to lease the old Sears site on the west end of the mall (with a potential to buy) evolved into buying the entire mall, the decision council members unanimously approved Friday with minimal discussion.
Mayor Pro Tem Jay Burk, who also is the Ward 4 councilman, said Friday's decision starts the clocking ticking on a 60-day due diligence period for the city and its trust authority, giving those entities time to analyze the mall property to ensure it is suitable for the FISTA (the City of Lawton already owns all the parking associated with Central Mal). The purchase agreement approved Friday specifies a $250,000 escrow for earnest money; the balance of the $14.6 million purchase price is due when the city completes due diligence and opts to close the sale. Closure must take place between Nov. 16 and Dec. 31.
Burk said several times during the meeting that city officials want to keep the tenants who already call Central Mall home, saying council members are "100 percent in favor" of every retail establishment already in the building. Burk said earlier this week that some defense contractors who had looked over the mall site liked the idea that it has some retailers and food establishments. Those tenants would be managed by the FISTA Development Trust Authority and its director James Taylor. The trust authority was created by the council specifically to operate the FISTA.
Burk said Lawton already has enough interest in the FISTA to fill the space that would be available from the old Sears site, as well as the former Dillard's department store on the south side of the mall. He said the FISTA already has 13 Letters of Interest from contractors and two Memorandums of Understanding, with another major contractor scheduled to visit Lawton and the FISTA site early next week.
Earlier action taken by the council approved creation of an $18.895 million Sales Tax Revenue Note, funding that will be available to purchase the mall and $4.187 to the trust authority for its first year budget. The majority of that funding ($3.9 million) is associated with the cost of converting Sears to use by FISTA tenants. That sales tax note will be repaid via the 2019 Capital Improvements Program approved by city voters last year.
Burk said city officials can't yet announce the names of contractors who will be housed in the FISTA, because of non-disclosure agreements. Taylor said those names can be disclosed when the entities have signed lease agreements with the trust authority and city, because they would become public record when those leases are signed.
Burk has said several of the contractors are ready to move into the FISTA now, even before renovations are done.
"We're really excited," he said of the economic potential that the project will bring to Lawton, via high tech employee salaries estimated at $100,000 per person.
He said the contractors initially will bring 50 jobs to the city, with that total to quickly grow to 150 to 200 people. And, he said those primary jobs will attract second and third tier jobs, or new service-related jobs possible because of the new salaried people. Economic development experts have said those secondary jobs would range from restaurant and grocery store workers, to medical personnel needed to treat more residents.
Ward 8 Councilman Randy Warren said the project wouldn't be possible without all the entities involved in the effort, to include local, state and federal officials and educational entities. He called the FISTA a "very, very positive thing for Lawton," because of the job potential.
"Citizens have an entity here in downtown that will revitalize downtown," he said.
The project isn't without critics.
Resident Paul Greene said there were many questions about the project that city officials haven't yet answered and details that should be released because they are public information, but haven't been. Greene posed some questions that Burk tried to answer, but said Burk and other city officials weren't answering questions and were hiding information from the public. His questions centered on topics such as the process needed to convert retail space to commercial use, whether the property has flood insurance and accident/injury insurance, whether the City of Lawton would be the landlord for tenants remaining in the facility, and whether the city was fully versed in the requirements for Department of Defense facilities.
City officials have said at earlier meetings that flooding problems associated with the parking lots would be among the factors explored when the city does its due diligence work. Burk said the FISTA Development Trust Authority would operate the FISTA and handle tenants, noting that is why the entity was created.