Your Town Now: Here's Looking at You, John Millar

Back in March, I mentioned a presentation given by John Millar of Divaris Real Estate in Virginia Beach, VA. A press release indicated that Millar had been invited by a “coalition of businesses, developers, community members, The University of Iowa and the City of Iowa City,” on account of his being “an expert on the development of mixed-use college town centers.”

Since then, the city and university have hired Millar at $55,000 as a consultant. From the council’s hiccuping official minutes: Millar “has developed a highly specific analysis tool for use in communities with special populations of universities, military installations and government functions. The analysis goes beyond the typical demographics found in the US Census each area studied [sic] and factors in, for college towns the hometown demographics of students [sic] populations, visiting populations and the staff and faculty populations within the community.”

Daft councilman Terry Dickens was predictably behind the move. UI Business Manager George Hollins enthused incoherently about the matter: “So when the opportunity came for John Millar to do some demographic studies,” he told The Daily Iowan on May 13, “we thought it would increase a product that both of us can use.”

Every sentence quoted above smelled funny to me. So I thought it wise to look into Millar’s qualifications.

Millar’s February presentation is available at (search “Hidden College Town Economies”). Some spoilers: The University of Illinois has been relocated to a place called “Urban-Champaign.” Concord, NH is also listed as a college town, despite its eminence as a state capital and the fact that only the University of New Hampshire School of Law and the New Hampshire Technical Institute contribute significantly to the college-aged population there. The rest–including Millar’s recommendation of “Sports Bar” as an important tenant–I’ll leave you to judge for yourself.

The chill comes when you look for a “mixed-use college town center” developed by Millar.

You won’t find one.

Millar’s résumé on Divaris’ website already promotes his involvement with Iowa City: In a section titled “Projects John has worked on include,” he links to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article reporting the city council’s vote to approve his hire. The same section includes several links to press releases commissioned by Divaris itself and limply branded “Divaris Commercial Real Estate Review.” Among these is his sole claim to expertise in developing mixed-use retail areas in college towns: The Town Center at Toftrees, in State College, PA.

The Town Center is part of the Toftrees Planned Community, or Toftrees West, depending on which report you read. As of this writing, ground hasn’t yet broken on the broader project, let alone on Millar’s purported brainchild, but you wouldn’t know that from Divaris’ website, which lists the Town Center as a case study. And whose Real Estate Review features this Millar-enhanced gush: “State College Town Center at Toftrees is on target to open in August 2009 in time for Penn State’s fall semester, followed by the Christmas season, ensuring that our retailers will have a highly successful start. It’s the optimum time to open!”

The other entries in Millar’s portfolio as of this writing include signing Anthropologie to a lease in a Virginia mall and his involvement in “Big Changes for Biltmore Mall.” The Biltmore Mall, in Asheville, NC, was managed until 2008 by Millar’s old firm of Jones Lang LaSalle; Divaris is now its property manager. The mall is dying;’s review from April 24, 2011 observes that “One by one, most of the big-name stores have closed, and many of them sit vacant…. Since the last update on this site, even the ‘Hospice Treasures’ store has closed, which is really not a good sign.”

Millar’s overweening claims echo those of his employer. Divaris developed the St. Charles Town Centre…which, again, doesn’t exist. The city council voted it down on May 9, 2010, but not before stand-up citizen Jim Mizgalski wrote to the city asking “Why does Divaris and [fellow developer] Shodeen show the Towne Centre project on their website when the zoning hasn’t been approved? What do they know that we do not know?”

Divaris does manage several malls, most of them in or near the resort town of Virginia Beach, and not all of them successful. Saddest of all might be the Springfield Mall in Springfield, Virginia. Divaris’ site misplaces it ten miles away in Fairfax.

Divaris got involved with Springfield Mall after Vornado Realty Trust bought it in 2006. A few years and a lot of talk later, nothing of practical value seems to have come from Divaris’ claim that it “consulted with Vornado Realty Trust on an upgrade, remerchandising and expansion program to add a mixed-use component in the Washington, DC suburb for Springfield Mall.”

As the mall deteriorated, its value shrank against the loan Vornado had taken out to buy the property in the first place. So, in 2010, Vornado defaulted. A year later, it bought back the loan, netting $45 million in the bargain. Some people short stocks–Vornado apparently shorted a whole town.

Divaris got paid for its consultancy on Springfield Mall. So, too, will John Millar get paid. If we’re hiring him to tell us who’s here and to look vaguely like Tom Davis, that’s great. That’s a lousy use of 55 grand, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts that FasTrac, the terrific mentoring program dropped by City High last year, could’ve put that money to much better use.

And maybe, just maybe, we know goddamned well who we are and who we want to be. Maybe we’ve got enough good ideas and elbow grease, enough smarts and enough gumption, to build a local economy more FUBU than FUBAR.

If that strikes a chord with you, run for city council, or start a business of your own.

At the very least, look skeptically at a council eager to spend our money on sizzle over steak. Many of them have never run businesses, or run them well. Our taxes shouldn’t buy them a sense of confidence. That’s the essence of any con game.