by Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig
Editor’s note: The following will facilitate understanding parallel developments concerning the Convention Center project over the course of 2006.
4 Lancaster County Convention Center Authority (LCCCA) board members Laura Douglas, Deb Hall, Jack Craver hold meeting at Farm & Home Center. Meeting is attended by mostly project opponents. Mayor Rick Gray, who took office only the day before, appears at the meeting and denounces opponents and supports the project. The meeting and Gray’s remarks are well-covered in the local print media.
4 County Commissioner Molly Henderson sends letter to LCCCA and Mayor-elect Gray making four proposals regarding project: One of the proposals is that all work on project cease until a “comprehensive feasibility study is conducted.”
11 Gray appears at county commissioners meeting and tells commissioners if they want a feasibility study they should pay for it themselves. Commissioners consider offer but do not act immediately. Gray soon backs away from call for study, and adds conditions for its performance. He also attacks Commissioner Shellenberger for his own conditions to the study.
11 Robert Field offers $50,000 to subsidize a feasibility study on the project.
18 County Commissioners vote 3-0 to contact Pricewaterhouse about performing complete feasibility on project
18 County Commissioners vote 3-0 to hire respected CPA firm of Reisel, Kunz, Lesher to audit the Conestoga View sale transaction. The report would be released in the early Spring.
28 Pricewaterhouse declines to conduct the feasibility study. No public explanation is given.
31 Sale completed for RACL ownership of Watt & Shand. City buys building from Penn Square Partners for $7.25 million, after paying $1.2 for the property seven years before.
31 Historic Preservation Trust given ok to develop historic Stevens interactive museum on site of Stevens’ former home and office.
2 NewsLanc discovers and reports project hasn’t gotten necessary “Highway Occupancy Permit” from the PA Dept. of Transportation (PennDOT). The private partners petitioned for a waiver for Traffic Impact Study, but PennDOT rejected the partners’ waiver request.
8 County Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson vote to solicit “Requests for Proposals” to perform first comprehensive feasibility study on project. Shaub dissents.
15 Lancaster County Commissioners vote to hire Pannell, Kerr, Forster (PKF) Consulting to perform feasibility study. PKF is preeminent in hospitality consulting. The cost of the study is projected to be $115,000. Robert Field ups his contribution to $65,000.
22 Lancaster County Commissioners file lawsuit challenging ACT 23 funding of project.
22 Former county commissioner Paul Thibault criticizes selection of PKF, saying the consulting firm is biased because it served as expert witness in hotelier litigation.
22 LCCCA board member Jack Craver writes published letter to editor calling for full comprehensive feasibility study.
23 LCCCA chairman Ted Darcus wants “gag” order imposed on board members after Craver’s letter is published. “We can’t have people doing their own thing,” says Darcus.
23 LCCCA executive director Dave Hixson announces his board will not cooperate in any way with PKF study. Penn Square Partners president Nevin Cooley says the same, as does the head of city agency, RACL, that purchased the Watt & Shand building.
24 LCCCA purchases laundry property on East King Street, adjacent to the project site.
25 County commissioner Pete Shaub publicly criticizes selection of PKF to perform feasibility study.
28 County challenge to ACT 23 funding is heard in Commonwealth Court. County is represented by special counsel, Howard Kelin.
1 County commissioner chairman Dick Shellenberger rejects offer from LCCCA chairman Ted Darcus that proposed the LCCCA taking county bond risk if commissioners would drop lawsuit and kill feasibility study. Shellenberger declines, saying, “I am not interested in horse trading,” he says.
4 Asbestos and hazardous debris is removed from Watt & Shand building in preparation for demolition.
5 Robert Field has Sunday News opinion item published: “Why subsidize a feasibility study?” Field writes: “Having determined that we were on the cusp of spending $140 million (most of it financed by the public) on a project that had not been subject to a professional economic feasibility evaluation I believed it imperative that a genuine feasibility study be undertaken.”
13 Penn Square Partners releases self-perfomed “study” showing ‘worst case’ scenario impact on city and county taxpayers. The study says that if county overnight stays declined by an unthinkable 29%, and no one used either the hotel or convention center, that the taxpayer cost would be, at most, $24.39 per city taxpayer, and $2.46 for county taxpayers. The “study” is given prominent placement on the front page of the Local News section.
20 LCCCA seeks 19 construction contracts for project. Board members Douglas, Hall, Craver protest receiving documents related to bid process only days before the vote. “It’s more of ‘we’ll ram this through, regardless,’” said Deb Hall.
21 State Senate passes amendment to Act 23 legislation by gutting another bill and inserting the Act 23 reforms. The changes directly benefit project and renders Commissioners lawsuit moot. The move is orchestrated and moved through the Senate by then Appropriations chairman, Sen. Gibson Armstrong. This is the second time Armstrong has ‘strong-armed’ legislation directly benefiting the project. The bill goes to the House and is met with sharp criticism by the entire Lancaster County Republican delegation who complain about the secretive “heavy-handed tactics” of Armstrong.
6 Armstrong’s bill is withdrawn from a House vote due to heavy protest from Lancaster
13 LCCCA board tables motion introduced by Laura Douglas to cap spending on project. There are no effective restraints on the cost of $140 million project.
18 RACL’s “Convention Center Task Force” awards contracts for demolition of Watt & Shand building.
25 Redevelopment Authority for the city of Lancaster (RACL) announces floating an additional $2 million bond, making city exposure $14 million.
26 State House passes Armstrong’s amendment, 146 to 41. All Lancaster County Republicans vote against the bill that directly benefits project and renders county lawsuit moot.
5 The PKF “Executive Summary” is released. Among its conclusions are that the project will lose $1.3 million per year and that project sponsors should consider “downsizing” or “find an alternate use for the site.” The report is immediately excoriated by project supporters.
5 It is reported in Lancaster Newspapers that the preliminary demolition of Oblender’s building was conducted without a city demolition permit. Demolition is temporarily halted. This is a rare public embarrassment for project sponsors.
7 LCCCA announces that the construction bids will be opened in two phases: smaller contracts May 9; the rest May 17. The reason for the delay is that contractors are said to need more time to study project.
9 First construction bids unsealed by LCCCA. Thirteen bids are received for four contracts: pre-cast concrete, laundry service, food service, fire protection.
10 County Commissioners Henderson and Shellenberger vote to petition the state Department of Community and Economic Development to review the county’s 2003 $40 million bond guaranty. Commissioner Pete Shaub votes against the motion, and publicly charges his fellow commissioners with violating the Sunshine Law: “Commissioner Henderson and Commissioner Shellenberger, you continually violate the Sunshine law.”
12 Pa. Governor Edward Rendell signs Act 23 bill, as amended by Sen. Armstrong. This codifies the RACL/PSP tax issue on the hotel tax issue. Penn Square Partners will not pay property taxes although it will be the “primary user” of the hotel. It is a major victory for project sponsors.
17 LCCCA opens remaining construction bids. The low bids immediately put the project $13.6 million over budget, from $89 million to $102.6 million.
24 The Intelligencer Journal reports that the LCCCA bids actually put the project $25.4 million over budget. Sponsors are urged by commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson to abandon the project; sponsors vow not to “throw in the towel.”
24 At its regular public meeting, Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson vote to revoke the $40 million county bond if the LCCCA re-markets bonds to get tax exempt variable or fixed rates. The motion, introduced by Henderson, and is made despite objections from county solicitor Howard Kelin, directs that the county guaranty is revoked if there is a change in the tax status of the bond. The resolution, like many introduced by Henderson, was clearly drafted by a sophisticated legal mind. Her husband, Alex, is thought to be the drafter of these motions.
24 At the same meeting as the Henderson resolution, Shellenberger and Henderson refer to a “Plan B” alternate use for the site. Marilyn Berger, a high end real estate broker; Lehr Jackson, an eminent developer; and William Roberts, a restorer of historic properties were negotiating to purchase the former Watt & Shand property to convert to condos and shops. The Berger-Jackson-Roberts alliance is not disclosed at this point.
31 At a special commissioners’ meeting in East Donegal Township, Commissioner Henderson publicly questions whether the geographic area from which the hotel and motel room rental tax was drawn is legal. “[I]t is time for the county commissioners to reconsider whether or not the entire county is the appropriate area for the bed tax,” she said at the meeting.
1 Demolition resumes after sponsors acquire permit. Large portions of the home and business of Thaddeus Stevens are razed. The budget gap is still not filled.
8 LCCCA board member, Deb Hall, introduces a motion to have a “legal audit” of legal fees paid by the Authority. The motion does not pass.
8 High Construction Company resigns as Construction Manager of the project in order to bid for the lucrative “General Trades” contract. As Construction Manager, High Real Estate was involved in setting bidding criteria, giving the company a distinct competitive advantage when it bid for the contract.
11 Developers Lehr Jackson, William Roberts, and Real Estate broker Marilyn Berger are revealed to be working on a ‘Plan B’ use for the former Watt & Shand building and the surrounding properties.
13 LCCCA board votes 4-3 to sue Lancaster County Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson. They are joined in the suit by Penn Square Partners and RACL. An affidavit submitted by the LCCCA financial advisor said the two commissioners were creating “immediate, imminent, and irrevocable” harm to the project.
15 Due to pressure from historic preservationists and project critics, a two-week delay in the demolition of the Thaddeus Stevens property is announced jointly by the LCCCA and Historic Preservation Trust.
18 Sunday News begins “countdown” until the end of the terms of Shellenberger and Henderson. There are 564 days remaining in the terms of the commissioners. Also, the Sunday News editorial agrees with Robert Field, the LCCCA board members Douglas, Hall, and Craver in calling for the release of the Stevens & Lee legal invoices. “Convention Center Authority only gives naysayers ammunition when it withholds information on attorneys bills.”
22 County Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson hold evening public meeting at the Ephrata Public Library. Dozens of citizens speak, the majority against the convention center project. The meeting was called by the commissioners to hold a public discussion on the possibility of shrinking the geographic area of the hotel room rental tax.
27 Through interim county solicitor, Howard Kelin, the county begins challenge of 2003 guaranty, signed by then commissioner chairman Paul Thibault. Kelin argues that the language of the bond guaranty and the Trust Indenture drafted by another Stevens & Lee attorney on behalf of the LCCCA is in conflict.
27 Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson hire Philadelphia-based firm of Dillworth Paxson to represent them in the lawsuit brought against them by the LCCCA.
27 Lancaster City Council votes unanimously to pass resolution supporting a countywide collection of the hotel room tax. This is a symbolic gesture in support of the project.
28 Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson vote to officially notify the LCCCA that unless construction begins by August first, they will consider that a violation of the terms of the bond agreement and therefore revoke it.
30 Audit reveals LCCCA has $258,000 deficit.