EDITORIAL FOR JULY 20-24, 2021
I’m CAVE MANager Paul Lotsof. In was almost exactly seven years ago, in 2014, when a character named Mike Reinbold started to appear at Benson City Council meetings. Reinbold had a position with a company called El Dorado Holdings but he never made any public statement as to exactly what his title was. What Reinbold did say was that a company called El Dorado Benson LLC had just purchased over twenty square miles of real estate on both sides of Highway 90 in Benson, and El Dorado Benson and El Dorado Holdings had fabulous plans for all that land. They were going to build a new retirement community that would include 28,000 houses, four golf courses and it would resemble a district of Northern Italy called Tuscany. The new development would be known as the Villages of Vigneto. Vigneto is the Italian word for “vineyard” and there would be fresh grapes for all to enjoy.
Reinbold said that his company would sell the houses to rich retirees from all over the world. On one occasion he even said that someday Tucson would become a suburb of Benson. Reinbold piled it on over a period of years and Benson’s community leaders lapped it up. El Dorado would spend billions in Benson and good paying jobs would abound. The Villages of Vigneto were the answer to Benson’s dreams and prayers.
The City of Benson needed to do very little to bring about this wonderful transformation. Reinbold’s only major request was that the city form ten special taxing districts. The districts would sell bonds and the bonds would be used to finance much of the construction. Eventually the bond cash would be paid back by the people who would be moving to Vigneto and the taxpayers of Benson would pay nothing. It was too good to be true, and our city officials loved the idea so much that in 2016 they formed the districts and decided to give the El Dorado companies a free hand in how the districts were managed.
To me something seemed very wrong. For starters, I doubted that there was a market for thousands of new houses in Benson and I doubted that El Dorado could create such a market.
In July of 2015 I received a tip that Mike Reinbold had been involved in a rather shady deal in Portland, Oregon. He and some associates in the late 1980s had convinced the Portland Airport Authority to let Reinbold and friends build an aircraft maintenance hangar and finance the project with public bonds. To make a very long story short, Reinbold’s companies went bankrupt and the State of Oregon got done out of about 60 million dollars. The Oregon Attorney General’s office filed a massive lawsuit against Reinbold and his associates. The court proceedings dragged on for years until Reinbold settled the case for seven million in 2005. Clearly there were parallels between the Oregon scandal and what was proposed for Benson. I took to the airwaves and told what I had found out. Nobody seemed to care much.
Prior to the formation of the ten districts, several lawyers and financial consultants warned the city council that special taxing districts are a risky method of financing real estate developments but the council decided to ignore those warnings and have nothing to do with consultants who talked about risk.
The stage appeared to be all set for a disaster but then something happened that Benson’s community leaders never expected. The Vigneto project got the attention of some well financed environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity. They began to file lawsuits based on the idea that the massive housing development would threaten endangered snakes, birds and plants. The environmentalists also feared that 50,000 new residents would pump so much water out of the ground that the San Pedro River would be damaged. But El Dorado had some irons in the fire. El Dorado Holdings President Mike Ingram had made contributions to both the Republican Party and Donald Trump’s election campaign. Trump loved big business and return favors were owed. The necessary permits would be granted in spite of the objections. Earlier this year, however, a big change took place in Washington and Trump was out of the White House. A very recent development is that the necessary permits will not be granted and the Vigneto project is in peril.
So where do we go from here? I think that the most vital question is whether El Dorado is willing to spend big bucks to fight lawsuits or are they more likely to give up? My guess is that El Dorado will decide that Vigneto isn’t worth risking the money it would take to pay lawyers to fight the lawsuits and quite possibly lose.
Meanwhile, not one new job has been created by Vigneto since 2014 when Reinbold’s grandiose plans were made public. Benson’s young adults continue to leave town as they have for generations. In recent years Benson has actually been losing population because the young adults leave town and because the death rate exceeds the birth rate. The City of Benson used to have an economic development committee but it was done away with because the city council was convinced that Vigneto was all that we could ever need to improve the economy.
Much more recently, on May tenth our city council voted to use 1.2 million dollars in bond proceeds to make improvements at Lions Park including a splash pad and playground equipment to make the ten year olds happy. When those ten year olds turn eighteen they will leave Benson and the splash pad will be the least of their concerns.
Next year there will be a city council election and the only issues will be the stars and stripes and apple pie. More than likely nobody with any good ideas will run against the incumbents and Benson will continue to stagnate as it has for as long as anyone can remember.
I think that Benson has a lot of potential to become a thriving growing community but not with our present leadership. Changes are needed but they will not happen by themselves. Some good people will have to stand up and be counted. I wouldn’t bet on that.
I’m CAVE MANager Paul Lotsof and the opinions you’ve just heard are mine and not necessarily anyone else’s. If you’d like a copy of this editorial or you’d like to express your opinions go to the CAVE web site and select Editorials. Then select Vigneto. We’re at CAVEFM.com. That’s CAVEFM.com.