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Work Continues On Choctaw Town Center Despite Lawsuits

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Claims of fraud, extortion, and breach of contract are hanging over the project, leaving many citizens concerned and frustrated. Claims of fraud, extortion, and breach of contract are hanging over the project, leaving many citizens concerned and frustrated.
CHOCTAW, Oklahoma -

Work on a major retail development in eastern Oklahoma County is moving forward, despite a growing web of lawsuits.

Claims of fraud, extortion, and breach of contract are hanging over the project, leaving many citizens concerned and frustrated.

"It's become a joke in Choctaw," said Choctaw Chamber of Commerce Chairwoman, Lindsay Smith. "We want to see dirt moving at the Choctaw Town Square."

It's been just about two years since city leaders happily announced that a Wal-Mart Supercenter was coming to town -- phase one of a two-phased, 39-acre retail development that soon became known as 'Choctaw Town Square.'

The project is being counted on to pump badly needed sales tax revenue – as much as $300,000 per month from the Wal-Mart alone -- into the local economy, and to give residents a wider variety of shopping options.

An early timeline showed construction of the Wal-Mart beginning in November 2012, and the store's grand opening in August 2013.

While much of the work to prepare the site for Wal-Mart has been done, it was just this month that the retail giant issued a notice to proceed to the company that will build the store, Satterfield & Pontikes.

There are several factors that have combined to push the project's start date back, not the least of which are a series of legal challenges that have arisen. Chamber leaders say it's hard to watch the lack of progress.

"It is, it's frustrating not knowing exactly what's going on behind the scenes," said Smith.

Three lawsuits have been filed over the project. Two of them were filed by the Arkansas-based developer, Choctaw Town Square, LLC, which walked off the job earlier this year, claiming the city was in breach of contract.

"I'm not sure how we're in breach, honestly," stated Choctaw City Manager Roger Nelson, who insists the city has done nothing wrong.

The dispute centers, in part, on CTS's $1.9 million developer fee. Nelson says the first he heard of the fee was Dec. 14, 2012, at the closing on the property being purchased from the city by Wal-Mart.

Nelson says he went to the meeting, expecting the city was going to be paid for the property sale.

"Yeah, we were surprised at the closing," Nelson explained. "I took a canceled check to closing for the title company so that they would be able to provide wiring instructions, and the lady said, 'Honey, you're paying us.'"

Two and a half months later, in a counter-claim to CTS's breach-of-contract lawsuit, Nelson and the city alleged CTS extorted the $1.9 million fee, in exchange for getting Wal-Mart to go through with the closing.

But legal documents provided by CTS indicate Choctaw Mayor Randy Ross, Nelson, and others with the city were not only aware of the developer fee, but came up with the formula that determined the fee, and signed off on it without complaint.

The city's apparent misunderstanding of what was going to happen at closing has made many wonder if the Mayor has handled the project in a way that's best for Choctaw taxpayers.

"Absolutely," Ross exclaimed.

Ross admits mistakes have been made, but says it's all going to work out.

"The bottom line is that, you look around and you see what's happening," Ross told News 9, pointing the prep work going on at the site. "We do have the [Wal-Mart] store coming, and that is a game changer for our community."

Choctaw residents agree it could be a game-changer, which is exactly why they want to avoid further delays, and settle the lawsuits.

"So that we can focus on the completion of Wal-Mart," said Chamber chair Smith, "as well as, the rest of the development."

At this point, the city has given no indication that it intends to settle with CTS over its claims, and is acting as the de facto general contractor for the project.

The total cost of the project was originally estimated at $7.5 million. Choctaw voters approved a bond issue to pay for it. So far, the city has spent about $150,000 defending itself from the lawsuits.

It's now expected the Wal-Mart Supercenter will open for business in the summer of 2014.

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