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The NEC's Subprime Mortgage 

Real estate deals may not have impoverished the Northcoast Environmental Center, but they sure didn't help

click to enlarge The NEC's house in Arcata. Photo by Lynn Jones.
  • The NEC's house in Arcata. Photo by Lynn Jones.

By now we've all heard plenty of stories about people who bought houses they couldn't afford, at the top of the market and with no money down. Those luckless homeowners, many of them foreclosed upon long ago, will forever be a symbol of this decade's great financial collapse.

Still, there haven't been many stories quite like the Northcoast Environmental Center's. Earlier this month, the legendary Arcata institution underwent a dramatic downsizing, laying off its executive director, moving offices and cutting back production of the Econews, its monthly newspaper. Now it's coming to terms with the fact that it made the same bad real estate decisions so many others did in recent years -- and, worse, that it did so on the backs of its supporters.

On Friday, Pete Nichols, chair of the NEC's board of directors, sounded pleased that the organization is moving past having to worry quite so much about balance sheets, asset management and foreclosure.

"We're using this as the opportunity to get out of the real estate business, and back into conservation," Nichols said.

However, the NEC isn't quite through with its real estate troubles yet. Some local people are a bit on edge right now, wondering when and how they're going to get back the money they loaned to buy the organization its headquarters at 1465 G St., Arcata, back in 2006.

The Northcoast Environmental Center borrowed a total of $550,000 to finance its purchase of the G Street office, according to deeds of trust filed with the Humboldt County Recorder's Office. All of the money came from local individuals and nonprofits. And though two creditors were paid off with the sale of one of the NEC's two downtown parcels last April -- leaving a total of $350,000 loaned against the G Street property -- as of this writing, the NEC has missed payments on the outstanding loans.

"I just have to play it day by day and tell myself it'll work out," said Arcata resident Don Tuttle Wednesday. Tuttle, the county's former director of public works, and his wife, Andrea, former head of the California Department of Forestry, loaned the NEC $50,000 in 2006 toward the purchase of the office.

Tuttle said that he first heard that the NEC was seeking money to buy new office space sometime in 2006, while at a fundraiser for a different institution at Baywood Golf and Country Club. Tuttle said that the money requested was "a pretty good chunk of change" for his family, but that he felt it was important that the NEC should survive. After thinking it over, he went to a lawyer's office and signed papers.

"We didn't want to see it completely disappear," he said. "It was the voice in the dark up here in the era when timber was king."

Felicia Oldfather of McKinleyville, who loaned the NEC around $100,000 at about the same time, said last week that she was not concerned about the possibility of the loan going south. "Of course, one likes to get one's money back," she said. "But it's not a loan I would have made if I was going to be out on the street if I didn't get it back."

In addition to Oldfather and the Tuttles, four other families or individuals and one other nonprofit institution loaned the NEC money for the G Street property. They are Bette and Milt Dobkin ($100,000), Duncan Ralph ($50,000), Bob and Mary Gearheart ($50,000), Steve Gompertz ($100,000) and the Redwood Region Audubon Society ($100,000).

The loans from Gompertz and the Audubon Society, which were packaged together in one note, were paid off in April of this year, upon the sale of one of the two lots that comprised the old NEC offices at Ninth and I streets in Arcata. According to Martin Swett, NEC treasurer, that note was partially secured by the property that was sold, and so had to be paid off in order for the sale to go through. A building at the site was the home of the organization until it was destroyed by fire in 2001.

Right now, the NEC -- which will be moving offices to the Jacoby Storehouse next month -- is looking at ways of getting the other creditors paid back. Swett said that the organization's board of directors is looking to meet with the remaining creditors in the upcoming days to work out an acceptable solution. One positive note: Despite the market crash, the G Street property seems certain to have at least $350,000 of equity remaining in it, which theoretically should be enough to pay back all of the outstanding creditors.

Swett -- who, like Nichols, was not on the organization's board of directors at the time the loans were made -- said that the organization felt a deep obligation to pay them back as soon as possible. "It's not a position we want to be in long term," Swett said. "They've taken care of us, and we want to be sure they're taken care of."

The deal to buy the G Street property didn't look so bad to the board of directors at the time, Swett said. The mortgage payments on the property were slightly less than the rent that the organization was paying on another downtown Arcata temporary location, the former Angelo's pizza parlor on H Street. What really hurt, Nichols said, was the fact that donations and grants dried up dramatically with the onset and deepening of the recession, a situation he doesn't expect will improve anytime soon.

Things may look rough in the short term, but both Swett and Nichols said that the organization's mid-term financial stability looks very healthy indeed. The NEC still holds unencumbered title on one piece of property -- the other downtown lot, which used to house half its headquarters. Though the site is badly polluted, Nichols said that the organization is very confident that it will soon secure grants to clean it up.

"Right now, living lean and mean is good for us, but when this property is cleaned up -- say in 2012 or 2013 -- we're going to have damn good reserves," Swett said.

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