Natirar is not just Raritan backwards, it was a backwards idea that has already lost millions of dollars despite being “designed” to pay for itself
The GOP deal has advantaged the rich developers and their goal of creating an exclusive spa and club, while costing Somerset County taxpayers millions
The Somerset GOP claims the purchase Natirar was good for the county, but the hastily completed and ill-conceived deal has not gone as planned and continues to cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
County taxpayers were promised the deal would start paying for itself in 2006 when a spa for the wealthy, a five-star restaurant, and private membership club opened and lease payments would increase. That didn’t pan out, the spa is still not open, and the county didn’t receive a penny until 2010 and then only received $150,000 a year.
That’s $150,000 for a mansion, a profitable five star-restaurant, an invitation members-only club, an “organic” farm and 80 acres of some of the most expensive land in the United States. Meanwhile, the county is still spending $250,000 a year (and as much as $400K earlier) to pay off the debt and another $150,000 in parks upkeep and even more on policing and other ongoing costs.
From a property intended to pay for itself, to millions of dollars in losses? That’s not just a bad deal – it’s a backward deal.
FACT: In 2003, the County bought the Natirar property -- 500 acres in Peapack-Gladstone, Far Hills and Bedminster -- for $22 million. The deal was initiated and completed in less than three months, with little planning or consideration of the financial implications. The result was the county was unable to find a partner, and had to foot the whole bill.
FACT: There was another group interested in the property, Bob Wojtowicz and Richard Branson, but only in the mansion, farm and outbuildings. They were looking to purchase the whole property, sell the rest off and keep just enough for a spa, high end restaurant and club. However, when Wojtowicz heard the County was rushing to buy, he took advantage of the County's haste by stepping away.
(Wojtowicz said,) "I went down to the county and talked to them about what their plans were.”
That conversation led to Wojtowicz backing out of the deal entirely.
“I thought it was a better idea to let the county buy it and try to strike a deal with them by pursuing a public-private partnership,” he said.
Not a better idea for the County, or the taxpayers. A better idea for himself.
Wojtowicz smartly walked away and let Somerset County use taxpayers money to purchase the property. Instead of going $22 million into debt himself and having to find ways to offload the parts of the property, Wojtowicz got a sweetheart deal where he has paid only about $1.3 million over 14 years. This while opening a fancy restaurant, high-end culinary school and operating a full functioning farm.
That makes Wojtowicz a great steward of his own dollars, and the Somerset County GOP a terrible steward of our tax dollars.
FACT: In August 2003, Wojtowicz and Branson inked a 99 year lease with the County for the north 90 acres, a 30,000 square foot Tudor style mansion, a number of outbuildings, a farm and more than a hundred cows, sheep and other farm animals. The county stated that the agreement would “allow the county to recoup most of its $22 million investment” beginning in 2006 when the spa opened. However, as reported by The Star Ledger in 2012:
Wojtowicz’s original hope was to finish the resort by 2006, but that date soon turned into 2009, 2010 and then this year.
It didn’t turn in to 2012. The Spa is still not open and the county is still not getting full rent payments. Instead, according to the 2015 audit of the Somerset County Investment Authority payments didn’t start until 2010, and then only at $150,000 per year.
To put how low that payment is for a restaurant, private club and mansion on 90 acres of land in the Far Hills area, there is a one acre home around the corner on Hidden Valley Road in Far Hills that paid $31,190.90 in property taxes in 2016. It would take just the five acres around the restaurant, spa and working farm to create a payment higher than we get now.
Add in the other 85 acres, mansion, secondary houses, occupied residences and we should be getting far more in payments.
FACT: The Somerset County Improvement Authority 2017 Budget includes $200,000 in principal payments and $96,000 in interest payments related to Natirar’s purchase. The Somerset County Parks Department 2017 budget includes $150,000 in costs for the upkeep of Natirar, but does not include policing or other operating costs.
FACT: Ten years after the Freeholders promised the taxpayers the Natirar deal’s costs would be absorbed Somerset County is spending more than $400,000 for Natirar and receiving only $150,000 in “voluntary rent payments.” That’s an annual operating loss of at least $250,000.
FACT: The $150,000 we’ve been getting from the 2003 lease since 2010 is pennies compared to what market rates would bring in. According to CommercialSearch, available commercial rents in Bedminster are between $12 and $30 a year per square feet. The Natirar mansion (forget the 90 acres of land, functioning restaurant, working farm, private club, two cottages, carriage house, and 4,000 square foot greenhouse) is 33,000 square feet. At Bedminster commercial rates, at the low end they would be paying the county $396,000 and at the high end almost a million dollars a year. So far Somerset County Improvement Authority audits say we’ve received $1.2 million dollars in the 14 years since the Republican Freeholders negotiated the deal, or just $86,000 a year.
|GOP Freeholder Director Peter Palmer celebrating the sweetheart Natirar giveaway with billionaire Richard Branson.|
The Taxpayer Supported Natirar Resort Is For the Elite, Not Regular Residents of Somerset County
FACT: The Natirar Club subsidized by Somerset County taxpayers is not intended to benefit most residents, but the richest. Here is how Wojtowicz describes the invitation only membership in his club on his website:
The Club at Natirar is a private membership club for people who share a passion for food, wine, adventure and the desire to be a part of a socially responsible establishment. The members have many opportunities to enhance and enrich their social, physical and cultural lives through the club programs and trips designed with the sole aim of creating amazing experiences for the members.
FACT: The restaurant, 98 Acres, also caters to the wealthy with “Farm to Fork” menus (the farm being the one they lease from Somerset County) and bottles of wine that cost up to $3,000.