By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Demi, of course, didn't escape scrutiny. "She walks in with her little entourage," remembers Christopher Mydgette, a computer consultant, of a night he went to a piano concert at the Mint, "and they come all the way down to the front -- the baby sitter, the bodyguard and all the kids. And right in the middle of the concert, Demi gets on the cell phone -- right down in the second row in front of everybody at this concert that they paid to see -- and she's on the phone talking. That was so rude, that was so tasteless. I had to sit there and listen to her talk."
"They were people from out of state, they didn't know our local customs or people or culture or food, anything," explains lawyer E. Lee Schlender. "After going to Shorty's one time, you turn around and run. You can only eat hummus pinwheels so many times for breakfast . . . it was like he didn't really care about making money, it was more or less a big charade of some kind. Once the buildings were built, it was sort of like, I don't really need to run these, I just want to have something to do for six months and then I'm out of here."
HIS OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
IF PLANET HAILEYWOOD WAS BEGINNING to grate, Valley Entertainment's business practices were beginning to make enemies. By all accounts, Willis' business acumen was appalling; he let Joe McAllister ("He was big, he was loud, he was brash," says Karamargin) run the show. Having bought virtually every property available, in many cases Valley Entertinment sent agents to see if owners of properties not on the market were willing to sell. One holdout was the Wood River Journal, who nevertheless saw their offices bought out from under them, and were forced into a new space around the corner. Another was Toni Lanning, whose Wood River Furniture and Antiques sat inconveniently smack in the middle of a block where Willis was planning a huge "entertainment complex." Though Lanning refused to sell to Willis, a set of blueprints circulating at the time showed Willis already owning her property.
"How do you think that woman felt?" asks Hailey businessman François Paris. "This was their whole attitude. 'We have enough money to buy this town. Either you gonna sell it to us or we're gonna open a business next door that's gonna kill you anyway.'"
Indeed, Willis' operations reverberated badly for some local businesses. When Shorty's became all the rage, for instance, Hailey's two other diners, the Sunrise and the Hearthstone, went under. Some said it was because they couldn't compete with Shorty's low prices, others that the possibility of seeing a movie star over your morning cup of joe was just too compelling, still others that the old diners had been on the verge of bankruptcy anyway.
In any case, Willis didn't seem to know when to stop, or perhaps appreciate what effect his disregard for the bottom line was having. With his unlimited funds and a game plan designed around the concept of doing basically what he wanted, the playing field for everyone else became distressingly uneven. When the E.G. Willis Building turned out to be 10 short of the city's required parking spaces, rather than have Valley Entertainment pay a reasonable $2,500 fee per space, Moore plunked down $675,000 for an empty building across the street and turned its parking spaces over to the E.G. Willis. (A planned wellness center for the space never materialized.) This kind of "price-is-no-object" bulldozing drove property values up, while flattening the competition.
"There was a guy who tried to negotiate a deal to open a restaurant in one of [the E.G. Willis Building's] spaces," says Karamargin, "but the rent they wanted was completely exorbitant, plus they wanted a percentage of profit, and the guy couldn't swing it. He just couldn't make a go of it."
One businessman who did make a go of it with Valley Entertainment, but wishes he hadn't, is François Paris. "They [Valley Entertainment] are very quick to say in the newspaper how they employ 250 people and it had such a great impact on the economy, we're filling all these mouths," he says, "but I dare you to find anybody who worked for them that had a good experience."
When Willis opened the E.G. Willis Building, in 1996, Paris (who was then known as Gilles Parisot) eagerly moved his home-furnishing business, Primitive Design, from Ketchum to Hailey. "The reason I invest in that place more than another one -- which was more expensive than any place else in town -- is the fact of who was the owner," says Paris, a French expatriate who, owing to continuing paranoia about local Willis informants, chooses to tell his story inside his Volkswagen bug parked ã in front of a Tru-Value hardware store on the outskirts of town. "They tell you, 'Bruce doing this, Bruce doing that, everything he touch turn to gold, you better jump in, you're one of the lucky ones.' They make you feel so special. If I knew I was going to have to bring a jar of Vaseline, I would've done it that day."
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