What's the Difference Between a Pit Bull and a Hockey Rink?


Pit bulls don't arrive 10 years late and for more than a million dollars that you budgeted. Michael Phillips has the whole gruesome story of how plucky small town Mayor Sarah Palin botched up her biggest development project.

Hockey is much loved in Wasilla, and Ms. Palin, whose son was a star player, wanted to build an indoor rink, with a track, basketball courts and soccer field. In the late 1990s, the city sought a 145-acre parcel owned by the Nature Conservancy, which wanted to sell the land to buy more environmentally sensitive property elsewhere. City officials negotiated a price of $126,000. Months passed without the city's securing a signed purchase agreement, according to the city's attorney, Tom Klinkner of Birch, Horton, Bittner & Cherot.

At the same time, Gary Lundgren, a Fairbanks real-estate investor, was in talks with the Nature Conservancy to buy a larger adjacent property. As discussions between the environmental group and the city dragged on, Mr. Lundgren said, he purchased the entire site for about $1 million.

Ms. Palin marched ahead, making the public case for a sales-tax increase and $14.7 million bond issue to pay for the sports center, which was to feature a running track, basketball courts and a hockey rink. At the time, the city's annual budget was about $20 million. In a March 2002 referendum, residents approved the mayor's plan by a 20-vote margin, 306 to 286. The city cleared roads, installed utilities and made preparations to build.

After Ms. Palin left office, the city decided to take 80 acres of Mr. Lundgren's property through eminent domain. An Alaska court confirmed the city's right to do so and ordered that an arbitrator determine the appropriate price.

Last year, the arbitrator ordered the city to pay $836,378 for the 80-acre parcel, far more than the $126,000 Wasilla originally thought it would pay for a piece of land 65 acres larger. The arbitrator also determined that the city owed Mr. Lundgren $336,000 in interest. Wasilla's legal bill since the eminent domain action has come to roughly $250,000 so far, according to Mr. Klinkner, the city attorney.

I've never been too impressed by Obama's community organizer days (certainly less impressed than these dudes), but did he ever botch an assignment like this? Palin was still scrambling to fix her screw-up six years ago, and suddenly her mayoralty is Caesar's conquest of Gaul.