“I’ve long been more concerned about how I feel about myself than what other people think of me.” –Robert Field, businessman, philanthropist, activist, and founder of NewsLanc.com, describing what drives his political activism and philanthropy.
The history of the convention center project in Lancaster is replete with colorful characters central to the civic drama.
There is ‘Cannonball’ Mayor Charlie Smithgall; radioactive Commissioner Pete Shaub and his velvety smooth predecessor, Paul Thibault. Also there is loose cannon activist Ron Harper ducking from a pie-throwing Jim Pickard; and the obsequious Dale High footman Nevin Cooley, dutifully carrying out his boss’ orders. These personalities are among the actors with ‘starring roles’ in this Lancaster story.
Fitting in with this cast of eccentrics was, in 2005, a tall, thin, balding, bearded, wealthy, prickly, 68 year-old, Jewish, investor builder and philanthropist Robert Edwin Field.
Until 2005, although active behind the scenes, Field was largely unknown to the general public in Lancaster County, a place that had been his home for almost 40 years. But he was a man of education and means, whose local friends tended to be academics and musicians. Nevertheless, many in the Lancaster establishment elite knew who he was.
Philadelphia born and raised, Field is the founder and chairman of The Manor Group, “a family of independent companies,” according to its website. The Manor Group includes the 276-unit Manor House Apartments in Lancaster Township; the first apartments that Field built and still manages. He has developed, built and manages ten other similar apartment complexes in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New Jersey; several hotels; produced award winning motion pictures; and assists his eldest son Richard in developing sites for communities in Central Europe.
Field graduated at the head of his class in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1959 and declined a two year fellowship for graduate studies at Cambridge University.
In 1985, Field (along with Professors Melvin Allen and Leon Miller of Millersville University) co-founded Project Forward Leap, a multi-year summer academic enrichment program targeting at-risk, inner-city children of promise.
With Kevin B. Zeese, he co-founded Common Sense for Drug Policy which, among many other activities, has published six editions of “Drug War Facts”, a seminal compilation of excerpts from government studies and peer reviewed periodicals concerning all aspects of drug and harm reduction research. It is widely referred to by journalists and academics.
On a wall inside Field’s modest and mementos clad office is a snap shot of ex-President Gerald Ford and Field at a raised dais, intently conversing. The occasion was a fund raiser for Arlen Specter successful campaign for the U. S. Senate in 1980, of which Field was state wide finance chair. The photo is telling: it is Field doing the talking; the former President listening closely.
Another picture is a publicity photo of the Lone Ranger, a gift from Field’s elder daughter a few years ago. “The Lone Ranger was a childhood hero,” Field says. “I was taken with the idea of doing good deeds anonymously.”
Until the year 2005, Robert Field, like many others, hadn’t paid much attention to downtown development. But now the proposal to build a major hotel there concerned him.
“Our firm had twice over a decade looked into buying the Brunswick and declined because we recognized the scant market for a downtown hotel. Over time, I came to feel morally compelled to raise questions publicly about building yet another hotel.” In October, Field shared his thoughts on how best to develop the Watt & Shand site and downtown Lancaster in the Perspective Section of the Sunday News.
Earlier, in April, Field met with Rufus Fulton, CEO of Fulton Bank, who referred him to Jack Buckwalter, President of the Lancaster Newspapers, who in turn suggested that Field meet with developer S. Dale High, who was the general partner in Penn Square Partners. The three meetings took place over a four day period.
“My conversation with Rufus at the bank gave me reason to believe that he lacked confidence in the convention center project and I surmised that Fulton had felt obliged to go along with major clients of the bank by taking a small partnership interest.
“Jack at the newspaper explained that he had been immersed over the past year in directing other Steinman enterprises and had left the convention center project in the hands of Dale High.
“When we met, I asked Dale if there was a feasibility study and he said “Yes,” but he declined to let me see it. He did not dispel my perception of the existing downtown hotel market (or lack thereof.) His explanation of why the new hotel would succeed struck me as ‘If we build it, they will come.’
“I reported back to Jack concerning my meeting with Dale, the highlight being: ‘Of greater concern is my impression from Dale that the hotel will only come near meeting its break even occupancy levels if the ground breaking triggers others to move ahead to establish business downtown. Dale says there are some positive indications that this will happen.’
“Dale then wrote to me with a copy to Jack as follows: “When I spoke of other projects already being considered for the City by other investors, I mentioned that I felt one of the really positive values of our project would be spin-off development for revitalization. I indicated that it would be a disappointment to the Community and to me if that did not happen. This is not to suggest that I was saying the hotel would not be successful as a result.”
“I responded to Dale with a copy to Jack in a detailed letter relating my recollection, having taken notes soon afterwards. In part I wrote: “You indicated there had been feasibility reports on the proposed hotel but from your body language and terse description I got the impression that they were not that determinative.” This was half a year before I learned there had been no feasibility studies!
“I also remind him: “You stated that the hotel and convention center would trigger a downtown revival and draw new restaurants and shops….You mentioned the praise and encouragement you have received from other business leaders and indications from them that they would also invest downtown…’ ”
Further attracting Field’s interest: “In October I read in the Lancaster Newspapers that the only a small group of obstructionists opposed the convention center project, and I didn’t, for a moment, believe their contention based upon my experience elsewhere. Having used Lancaster more as a refuge for family and friends over several decades since developing Manor House, I was startled to discover how power had shifted over time from thirty or forty power centers to become concentrated in a remaining handful. I was getting concerned and annoyed.”
Field went to Fox 43 in York and encouraged them to sponsor a public opinion survey (at Field’s expense.) The questions were developed by Fox 43 and Opinion Dynamics, which performed surveys for the Fox network among many other national clients. The startling revelation was that 78% of those with an opinion disapproved of the county guaranteeing any portion of the convention center bond issue!
Very dissatisfied with how the newspaper reported the principal findings of the report, Field paid several thousand dollars for a half-page advertisement in the morning and afternoon newspapers for the publication of the entire report, word for word.
Then, according to Field, “Someone who had noted my growing involvement sent a package which contained every study to date on the project. I was astonished with what I saw. None were ‘feasibility studies.’ All were ‘market studies’, which do not include projections of economic viability (profits or loss). I asked the opinion of American Evaluation, Inc., a group of MAI appraisers, and Mark Kenney, MAI, examined each study and opined: “In conclusion, my review of the five reports discussed above indicates that they are intended to be market or marketability studies, and neither are represented as feasibility studies nor include sufficient information and analysis required to be considered feasibility studies.” I released his findings to the media.”
On December 16, Field also wrote John Buckwalter, Chairman of the Board of Lancaster Newspapers, Inc. summarizing matters that he had revealed to Buckwalter in an earlier hone discussion. Field recommend that LNP engage its own MAI appraiser to review the studies; engage a disinterested law firm from another part of the state to “investigate whether representatives of the Partnership, Authority or others had knowingly and purposefully misrepresented the scope of reports to state, county, city and authority officials”; editorialize in favor of “county, city and authority jointly select[ing] a reputable national consulting firm that specializes in convention center and hotels to perform feasibility studies of the Convention Center Project and of the Marriott Hotel”; and “engage the services of an award-winning reporter from one of the national newspapers to thoroughly investigate, evaluate and disclose what has transpired and faithfully print the stories.”
Buckwalter responded in his usual affable manner on December 19:
“Your thoughts concerning the difference between a ‘marketing’ study and a ‘feasibility’ study were interesting, but in discussion with the High organization, I am convinced that it was a fasibility study and we will stand on that… How about if you and I just agree to disagree.” (In reviewing this six years later, Field reflects that was possibly Buckwalter’s biggest mistake during his career and in the history of the Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.)
What particularly concerned Field was that three years earlier, in September, 2002, James Pickard, then chair of the Convention Center Authority, had represented the following to the State on an application for a $15 million grant:
“Please see the attached Market and Economic Analyses for the Proposed Lancaster County Convention Center prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLC. This report represents the results of the market and economic feasibility for the project and includes a recommended building program and utilization estimates as well as a financial and economic impact analysis.” Field suspected the representation skirted close to a misdemeanor or fraudulent misrepresentation.
On a clear chilly December morning in 2005, Field marched in front of 8 W. King Street (offices of the Lancaster Newspapers) with a dozen others. It was a modest protest with well-dressed people holding signs and handing out fliers critical of the convention center project. They were careful not to impede other pedestrians on the sidewalk.
One of the newspapers sent down a reporter to cover the event. He didn’t bother to bring a notepad. He did not take a flier. His account distorted what Field had told him. The reporter didn’t even spell Field’s name correctly, adding an ‘s’ to it. But Field, by then a veteran political activist, knew that a warning shot had been fired in what would likely become a battle.
Soon the newspapers would be very familiar with the correct spelling.
EDITOR: The above was lifted in whole from the series in NewsLanc concerning the Convention Center Project. It was written in large part by Chris Hart-Nibbrig.