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Running on Empty 

Touted as a business leader and expert, Lea Marquez-Peterson finds herself bankrupt with millions in debt

Lea Marquez-Peterson is almost everywhere a business and political social climber could possibly want to be. She is the executive director of the Greater Tucson Leadership, chairwoman of Pima County's Small Business Commission, a member of the city's Convention Center Commission, and past president and member of the board of the local chapter of National Association of Women Owned Business.

She is an expert, chosen for the exclusive citizen's panel of the Regional Transportation Authority, which will determine the next countywide transportation scheme and the sales tax to pay for it. The Arizona Daily Star selected her to quiz political candidates three years ago, and she continues to be a go-to person for the Star on many matters of business. Fortune further boosted her image with an article quoting her on management styles in the publication's May 2002 Small Business Issue.

At 35, she has two business degrees, a pile of awards and friends in high places.

"I think she's an asset to the Small Business Commission," said Supervisor Ann Day, the Republican who appointed Marquez-Peterson. "She's very thorough and very involved in the community."

Added Dan Eckstrom, the Democrat who has retained his immense political power after retiring in 2003 from the Board of Supervisors: "Lea's heart is in the right place."

And now Marquez-Peterson, whose multiple start-up businesses included two Chevron stations, is becoming familiar with tax liens, delinquent property taxes, Superior Court lawsuits and bankruptcy.

Well behind in payments on loans for the gas stations and facing a lawsuit from GE Capital, Marquez-Peterson and her 36-year-old husband, Daniel Harold Peterson, have filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 7, regarded as the simple and quick manner for individuals, couples and corporations to discharge debt.

The couple filed the bankruptcy petition on April 14, a little more than a month after lawyers for GE Capital sued the Petersons in Pima County Superior Court alleging breach of contract on the couple's failure to repay the business loan.

"Filing bankruptcy was an option of last resort, but it was the right business decision at the time," Marquez-Peterson said as part of her written responses to Weekly questions. "It was not a decision I made lightly."

It was a decision that blocks any movement on the Superior Court lawsuit. Bankruptcy actions stay pending legal and collection proceedings.

By the time Steven N. Berger, the Petersons' Phoenix lawyer, filed the bankruptcy notice, the couple had built up more than $3.2 million in debt and reported $104,477 in assets. Marquez-Peterson and her husband already had lost a nearly $30,000 judgment to California Petroleum Equipment, according to court records.

Told of Marquez-Peterson's business failure, bankruptcy and delinquent taxes, Day, her county sponsor, said: "I didn't know. I'm shocked to learn that. She's very proactive. She can be very persistent, very tenacious."

Marquez-Peterson graduated from Sabino High School in 1987 and earned a bachelor's degree in marketing and entrepreneurship from the University of Arizona in 1992. She began a career with Shell Oil Co. in Los Angeles and also earned an MBA from Pepperdine University in 1996. She was with Shell for seven years in franchise and business development--the very areas she would try when she moved back to Tucson in 1998.

"My business experience was in the development of gasoline stations and convenience stores," Marquez-Peterson told the Weekly. "Industry margins were much stronger in the late '90s when I began."

In Tucson, Marquez-Peterson created several companies--each incorporated with its own name and filings, with most of them incorporated in Delaware, long a state of choice for its favorable taxes and fees and disclosure rules. Peterson said she simply was taking her lawyer's advice on where to incorporate.

Her American Retail Corp. tapped into GE Capital for loans for two Chevron stations, one at Grant Road and Stone Avenue and the other at Oracle and Prince roads. Another company, American Fuel, had a gas station and convenience mart at 22nd Street at Country Club Road.

Marquez-Peterson and her venture racked up awards. In 2000, American Retail was named by the Small Business Development Council as Tucson Small Business of the Year in the retail/supplier category. In 2001, she was named Woman Business Owner of the Year by the group she served as a local officer, the National Association of Women Business Owners. The following year, it was Tucson Minority Small Business Retailer of the Year, and in 2003, she was Small Business Leader of the Year, presented by the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Wells Fargo Bank.

But along with the awards and memberships came debt. Marquez-Peterson and her husband owe GE Capital $1.7 million for the Grant-Stone store and $550,000 for the Oracle-Prince store, according to the bankruptcy filing.

"Gasoline station owners have been increasingly challenged by shrinking margins as distributor and wholesale prices have increased. The industry's profit margins have shrunk dramatically and many independent operators have gone out of business in recent years," Marquez-Peterson said.

"There is always a certain amount of uncertainty when predicting sales for a brand new business," Marquez-Peterson said. "We did not meet our sales and revenue expectations."

Besides a car wash, her gas station-markets also had pizza and chicken. Her debt to Orion Pizza is $20,000, according to the list of creditors included in the bankruptcy filing.

Also included is a $38,000 student loan. But not all of the debt was for business or education.

Marquez-Peterson and her husband also owe $32,919 in Bank of America credit card debt, $13,036 in Wells Fargo credit card debt, $8,244 on a Citibank Platinum card, and $5,889 to Bank One. One of the smallest consumer debts listed is $217 to Bill Me Later of Omaha, Neb.

Four Marquez-Peterson companies--American Retail Corp., the Marquez-Peterson Group, Marquez-Peterson II and Valle Verde Partners--owe the Internal Revenue Service a total of $93,978, according to the bankruptcy file. The IRS had filed nine liens against Marquez-Peterson and her husband. The city, according to documents at the Pima County Recorder's Office, filed liens for back sales taxes totaling more than $13,000.

Another $29,429 in property taxes, mostly to the county and area schools, was delinquent as of Feb. 14.

Marquez-Peterson, her husband and daughter live in a foothills home they rent from her parents for $2,435 a month. Marquez-Peterson and her husband sold their nearby home, for which they borrowed $187,600 in 1998, for $275,000 last year.

"With the sale of the house, we paid off some existing debt incurred from our business," Marquez-Peterson said.

She hasn't given up some of her necessities, like the cell phone and BlackBerry ($150 a month, according to bankruptcy papers).

After serving on the Greater Tucson Leadership board, Marquez-Peterson became its executive director in February. "As a leader in the Tucson community, Lea is a great match for our organization," said Jean McKnight Guymon, then the group's president.

The press release about that appointment asserted that Peterson "is a successful business leader."

Marquez-Peterson, who reported her part-time Leadership position salary at $1,500 a month, also operates Tucsonbizforsale.com. Her husband is paid $96,000 a year as an administrator for Tucson Long Term Care Medical, according to bankruptcy papers, and also has an interest in a property-rental company, Blue Ox Properties.

She said she can use her positions and her background to help more people.

"The experience I've achieved during my business operation and later business failure has given me insight into what businesses work well and which do not. I've experience what many entrepreneurs dread--the closure of a business. I've learned so much in terms of operations, financing and negotiation that I am an asset to my business brokering clients," Marquez-Peterson said.

Similarly, she sees no credibility problem with her roles on city-county commissions that dispense business advice--including how to treat small business and how to better run the long-subsidized Tucson Convention Center--to the City Council and Board of Supervisors.

"If there is a positive to this situation, it would be that I might use my experience and the struggles I have gone through to help other people," Marquez-Peterson said. "I have all kinds of advice to give now ranging from advice on debt/equity financing to talking through the emotional issues of a situation like this."

One of her key public positions is on the citizen's panel for the Regional Transportation Authority. She and her colleagues are preparing to tell the RTA and the region's elected officials what to include in a transportation improvement plan that will go to voters, along with a likely half-cent sales tax, in May 2006. Marquez-Peterson, a Republican, did not vote in the county bond election last year, records show.

"We all need to get out and vote more consistently and that means all votes--including bond elections," Marquez-Peterson said. "I am learning much about Tucson's transportation issues and hope to be beneficial contributor to the RTA. I am still relatively young and am like a lot of working moms--trying to juggle the priority of family with my career. Perhaps down the road, I might benefit Tucson by serving as a public official."

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