2000-2001: Bloody skirmishes; Thaddeus Stevens gets in the way; Part II
by Christiaan A. Hart-Nibbrig
The bitter acrimony among the Lancaster citizenry that would mark the next decade of the convention center’s history began to show itself by the year 2000.
Dozens of Lancaster County hotel and motel owners—who now paid a 5% tax for every room rented—filed a joint lawsuit against the project sponsors in March.
Ron Harper, Jr., with his video camera, website, and indefatigable energy, was unleashed and asking uncomfortable questions to proponents of the project wherever he found them.
Downtown store owners, like the respected Rick Atwater, whose family owned and ran Oblender’s Furniture for a century, were left sour after feeling forced to sell out on the cheap.
At regularly scheduled Lancaster County Convention Center Authority (LCCCA) meetings, questions from the public went unanswered. A pie was thrown; insults hurled.
Nearly an entire city block of historic buildings were targeted for demolition.
But the project, stewarded by James O. Pickard, Chairman of the seven-member LCCCA board of directors, proceeded apace.
Jim Pickard ran LCCCA meetings with an imperious hand and an iron gavel. A former republican Pennsylvania Secretary of Commerce (Thornburgh administration, 1983-87), Pickard was also Lancaster Mayor Charlie Smithgall’s handpicked Economic Development Director. From that position, Pickard was a key player in the 1998 purchase of the historic Watt & Shand building by Penn Square Partners.
Pickard, owner of a successful, international, niche saw and knife export business, was a client of Stevens & Lee LLC,, the Reading-based law firm that authored the Convention Center Act of 1994. Stevens & Lee was also the solicitor for the LCCCA and the County, and High Industries’ registered lobbyist in Harrisburg.
The LCCCA business offices were located within the Lancaster branch of Stevens & Lee, on the second floor of the Fulton Bank building on Penn Square, across the street from the proposed facility. The other Penn Square Partner, Lancaster Newspapers, occupied another corner of the Square.
During 2000 and part of 2001, nominally “public” meetings were held in both the County Commissioners’ meeting room, and the tiny Commissioners conference room, where there were, at times, no seats available to the public. By mid-2001, the meetings moved to the City Council Chambers at the cavernous Southern Market Center on Vine Street.
Meeting attendees usually included only board members, whose attendance was often sporadic, and a scant few members of the public. Harper was one of the few citizens regularly present, as were a few hotel and motel owners, such as Rodney Gleiberman of the Continental Inn and Peter Chiccarine, of the Best Western Eden Resort.
As chairman, Pickard displayed a penchant for removing the audience from a meeting mid-stream, while he held executive sessions with only board members and the solicitor – Stevens & Lee partner, and County Attorney, John Espenshade – present. These ‘executive session’ actions caused the attendees and reporters to stand out in the hallway for extended periods until Pickard re-convened the public part of the meeting. (This was a practice later used often by Ted Darcus, a successor to Pickard as LCCCA chair.)
The meetings themselves were often testy and oddly rude exchanges for a community with a reputation for civil comity. If a hotelier made a public comment during a meeting, and they were often the only members of the public there, Pickard would announce, before the speaker said anything that the speaker was a litigant against the Authority.
Sometimes the histrionics devolved into farce. At one meeting in early May, 2001, Harper presented Pickard with a chocolate cream pie—“humble pie,” Harper called it. With mock deference, Harper placed the pie in front of Pickard, who sat in his center seat on the raised dais. In a rage, Pickard roughly grabbed the pie and threw it back toward Harper. He missed, but the entire act was recorded by the local television news cameras and played for the folks at home. Pickard looked unhinged. The small crowd was stunned.
“You’ll get no apology from this chair,” Pickard snarled at Harper. Pickard was criticized by the Lancaster Newspapers, and later apologized for his actions (but not to Harper) at the next meeting.
The other six members of the LCCCA board of directors were a relatively unknown mix of business executives, lawyers, and working stiffs, none of whom, save one, had any experience with conventions or trade shows.
The original members appointed by the County were: Pickard; Garth Sprecher, a communications executive; Camilla Collova, a retired corporate executive; Paul Wright, retired general manager of a large retail store. The city appointees to the LCCCA board were: Willie Borden Jr., a journeyman electrician, Bradley Clark, vice president of a commercial realty firm; and Christina Hausner, an attorney.
Clark was the only member to have any experience with trade shows, or event planning and promotion, and it was not extensive.
The hotelier litigation provided Pickard the justification to prevent the board from answering questions from the public during LCCCA meetings. But the policy proved to be public relations problem and eventually forced Pickard to address it publicly.
Pickard wrote a public “clarification” published in the Lancaster Newspapers:
“We wish to clarify what the public comment section of the agenda is for — and will add this above point of clarification to all of our agendas. We also wish to clarify what the “public comment’ portion of the agenda is NOT: It is not a question and answer session. It is not an opportunity for plaintiffs or defendants in a lawsuit to conduct discovery. The Authority has complied with all the requirements of Sunshine Act and welcomes public input and comment during our meetings. It is not the intention of the Authority to avoid being responsive to legitimate questions, but the lawsuit filed by the hoteliers has had a chilling effect on our ability to respond. We have been advised by our legal counsel that it is inappropriate to respond to questions or comments from the public that impact the pending litigation. …” [capitalization in original]
In a rarely critical comment against the LCCCA, a Sunday News editorial (“Misguided Policy, The Convention Center Autority Overreacts To Requests For Information About The Project”) suggested the authority board open itself up to questions from the public.
The external pressure didn’t faze Pickard, who refused to answer questions, from anyone, regarding the authority’s finances, including the status of the authority’s budget or its building plans.
In a letter to the Lancaster New Era, Mark Clossey, General Manager of the Lancaster Host Resort and Hotel, and a litigant against the Authority, wrote:
“When you cannot ask questions at a public meeting, and are silenced for asking for more information, it reflects how wrong the project truly is. I have never been allowed to enter the arena since a few politicians and bureaucrats said the hotel and convention center is going to be built. I guess that means at any expense. This type of process defeats such projects, not a lawsuit.”
At a later LCCCA board meeting, after Clossey asked a question during the public comment portion, Pickard glared at Clossey, “I’m not obliged to answer any of your questions,” He then added: “The question you just asked falls in the classification of not being responded to.”