Not Colin: Downtown's unsung backer

Last fall, the acrimonious divorce of the partnership credited with the revitalization of the Downtown Mall– Lee Danielson and Colin Rolph's D&R Development– finally was settled.

Now, another divorce seems to be behind the sale of more of the Mall and shedding some light on how such properties were purchased in the first place.

After the Danielson/Rolph split, Rolph ended up with the Charlottesville Ice Park, Regal Cinema, the Exchange Center, and the four empty former Wachovia buildings.

Continuing to lead and lobby for Mall development, last year Rolph served as president of the Downtown Property Owners Council, a group he helped found. The group made headlines in May 2002, when it proposed a Downtown Service District that, among other things, would tax properties to fund roving ambassadors help the lost and befuddled.

Widely credited with the rebirth of downtown, Rolph has served on the boards of the SPCA and Live Arts. As chairman of Live Arts, he recently signed a fund-raising letter.

But recently filed court papers allege that the source of the money for many of the ambitious projects that changed the landscape of the Downtown Mall was actually his wife, Dorothy Batten Rolph. And at times, according to her suit, she wasn't aware she was funding them.

The June issue of Virginia Business lists her father, Frank Batten Sr.– with an estimated worth of $900 million– as one of the 100 richest men in Virginia. Former chairman of Landmark Communications, which owns the Virginian-Pilot and the Weather Channel, he gave over $170 million to educational institutions earlier this year.

He contributed a hefty $60 million to UVA to set up the Batten Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, from which Dorothy obtained an MBA in 1990.

(Frank Batten Jr., Dorothy's brother and current chairman of Landmark Communications, also makes the top 100 with his own $600 million estimated worth.)

In May, the Ice Park sold to a team of four local skating and business enthusiasts. Early this month, Keith Woodard of Woodard Properties paid a reported price of between $1.7 million and $1.8 million– a figure Woodard would neither confirm nor deny– to buy the boarded-up Wachovia buildings.

"The owners have taken a look at things and decided it's the right time to sell," says Tim Slagle, chief financial officer of Colin Rolph's post-Danielson venture, Downtown Mall Properties LLC.

Slagle says the cinema and other properties, while not officially for sale, could be acquired. And the LLC will stay in existence with greatly reduced size, assets, and employees– even Slagle's job will be downsized.

The Danielson/Rolph empire began to take shape shortly after Colin and Dorothy Rolph bought Tall Oaks, a stately Keswick farm, in 1994.

In 1995, according to Dorothy Rolph's suit, her husband and "a neighbor" began talking about "a number of expensive real estate development and business projects." That squares with the oft-repeated story that Danielson, then living next door at a farm called Tally Ho, met Rolph at the proverbial fence-rail. What hasn't, until now, been revealed is that the initial funding was provided by cash investment and loans guaranteed by Dorothy Rolph, according to her divorce papers, which were filed April 24.

"She did provide the initial funds and she did guarantee the loan, as I did," says Danielson, who called from the Atlanta airport en route to Charlottesville.

By 1996, cost overruns led Colin Rolph to withdraw funds from personal joint accounts that held property Dorothy had acquired through gift or inheritance– without her knowledge, according to the complaint.

When Rolph and Danielson began looking for further investment opportunities in 1997, it was Dorothy Rolph's stated impression that the initial ventures were doing well. The bill of complaint alleges she was unaware that Colin Rolph was continuing to withdraw funds from their joint accounts and had extended to $17.5 million a $6 million line of credit that she'd guaranteed.

"The $6 million was for the ice park," says Danielson. "There were other projects."

The document also notes that the "neighbor/co-investor" was not matching the cash infusions.

"That's not correct," says Danielson, who says he lost a "substantial seven-figure number" as a result of his partnership with Rolph.

It was when the Danielson/Rolph dream team fell apart and entered litigation in 2001 that Dorothy Rolph learned the extent and amount of the "misappropriated funds," says her complaint.

Not only had she unwittingly funded the D&R empire, but she had to pay off the pair's debts and spend additional funds to buy their investment properties out of liquidation, the complaint alleges.

"I'm paying off my fifty percent of the shortfall on the loans," says Danielson.

Neither Colin nor Dorothy Rolph returned The Hook's calls.

"These are simply disputed allegations at this point," says Colin Rolph's attorney, Daniel G. Dannenbaum. "We would ask the community to respect the privacy of the family at this time."

Danielson and Rolph are credited with invigorating the Downtown Mall. But vision only carries one so far without funding, making Dorothy Batten Rolph a major contributor to Charlottesville's widely lauded pedestrian mall.