Shake-up at the Convention Center Authority and a new mayor plays Hamlet
by Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig
“I don’t believe in serving on boards where I am not wanted.”
- John Fry, then President of Franklin & Marshall College, in a letter of resignation to Commissioner Dick Shellenberger.
Concerns of the project sponsors about the Shaub, Shellenberger, Henderson board of county commissioners were realized at the end of their first year in office at the close of 2004. It was in December of that year when Dick Shellenberger, with the support of Democrat Molly Henderson, replaced fellow Republican Pete Shaub as chairman of the board.
The alignment of Shellenberger and Henderson was more than just an irritant to project sponsors. The two county commissioners were an existential threat to the project.
The “57 Questions” the pair posed to Penn Square Partners in February, 2005, had gone unanswered, and led them to question openly a number of issues pertaining to the project, from de-coupling the room rental and excise taxes, to revoking the county guaranty. Grounds for a county-sponsored law suit was also explored in the first months after Shellenberger took over as chair.
One problem the sponsors did not anticipate until 2007 was the composition of the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority (LCCCA) board of directors.
The LCCCA board was established in 1999 as a seven-member body, jointly authorized by the county and city of Lancaster. At its inception, the county was given four seats; the city, three. In 2003, the county lost a seat to the city, giving the city the majority on the LCCCA board.
In 2007, the board of commissioners – now effectively the Shellenberger, Henderson board – the swing vote would revert to the county. That was when the sponsors expected the county to pose a problem on the LCCCA board.
On, September 1, 2005, the three county-appointed board members were: Judy Ware, John Fry, and Garth Sprecher.
Ware was a former art teacher and, with husband Paul Ware, a philanthropist whose four-year term was coming to an end on September 15, 2005. During her time on the board, Ware was regarded as an enthusiastic supporter of the project. Although Ware and the sponsors of the project wanted her to be re-appointed to the authority board, Shellenberger and Henderson replaced her when her term expired.
Ware’s replacement on the LCCCA board was Laura Clampitt Douglas, a tough, smart, sophisticated businesswoman who didn’t suffer fools. At Douglas’ first LCCCA board meeting, she peppered the chairman, Ted Darcus, and executive director, Dave Hixson, with questions and comments on bills the board was paying.
John Fry was then president of Franklin & Marshall College, the private, liberal arts college located in the northwest section of Lancaster city. In 2003, Fry was appointed to replace Jim Pickard on the LCCCA board. Pickard’s second term had begun only a month earlier. (Pickard, the board’s first chairman and executive director, stepped down from those positions in 2002, but remained a voting board member.)
“We are lucky to have someone of John Fry’s caliber on the board,” said a beaming (soon to be ex-) Commissioner Paul Thibault, announcing Fry’s appointment, in October, 2003.
Fry, like Judy Ware, was known as a committed supporter of the downtown project.
According to the county ordinance establishing the LCCCA by-laws, the county’s terms were to be four-year appointments. Therefore, it was assumed Fry’s term ran until 2007. However, when Fry was named at a regular commissioners’ meeting in 2003, it was recorded in the minutes of the meeting that his term would end in 2005. A letter sent to Fry confirming his appointment transcribed the error from the minutes, with the letter also stating that the term would end in 2005.
One afternoon in late September, 2005, with these two documents – the minutes and the letter – Shellenberger brought county treasurer and fellow Republican Craig Ebersole to meet with Fry and showed him the letter and minutes indicating his term was expiring. The next day Fry submitted his resignation to the county commissioners.
“I don’t believe in serving on boards where I am not wanted,” Fry wrote in a letter to Shellenberger. “For reasons that are not clear to me, you have requested that I immediately submit my resignation as a member of the Authority.”
Shellenberger and Henderson appointed Deb Hall, president of the Ephrata Chamber of Commerce, to the LCCCA board. Like Douglas, Hall was intelligent and tough-minded. If anything, she had a harder edge than Douglas, and she, too, had questions about the project.
In October of 2005, businessman Garth Sprecher, was one of only two original board members still serving on the LCCCA board. Citing fatigue, Sprecher announced he was resigning from the board on October 15.
“Don’t read anything into this,” Sprecher said at his last LCCCA meeting. “I’m just tired.”
Sprecher’s seat was temporarily filled by Timothy Lease, a general manager of a large Mountville motel. Lease resigned suddenly after less than a week due to personal issues. He was replaced weeks later by another Shellenberger and Henderson pick, Jack Craver. Craver was a former hotel executive with decades of prestigious experience in the hospitality industry, including management of the world reknown Plaza Hotel in New York City.
The changing face of the convention center authority board meant that the days of unquestioned ‘rubber stamping’ of agreements and consultants fees were coming to an end. If the LCCCA was going to debate among itself about documents and invoices, then the project could be delayed, perhaps even terminated. In the months to come, the new board members would clash repeatedly with the board’s chairman, Ted Darcus. (Editor’s note: To be described in detail in a future installment.)
While the uncertainty of the project’s future seems not to have affected the Republican running for mayor of Lancaster, die-hard supporter, Charlie Smthgall, it did seem to influence the Democrat candidate for mayor in 2005, Rick Gray. Gray was a local attorney with a reputation of representing the disreputable. The burly, goateed, bow-tied Gray seems to have played a Hamlet-esqe struggle on the public stage.
“The project proposed by Penn Square Partners holds a promise of good for the county, the city and the school district.,” Gray stated on March 22, 2005.
NewsLanc’s publisher Robert Field recalls a meeting at Gray’s invitation on Sept. 8th and Gray expressing some concerns about the Convention Center project.
Consistent with Field’s recollection: “If elected mayor, Rick Gray would immediately meet with his top advisers to evaluate the viability of the downtown hotel and convention center….Keeping the county commissioners’ concerns in mind,’ he told the Lancaster Rotary Club Wednesday, if he and his advisers decide it is not what the city needs, Gray said he’d ‘pull the plug; on the $134 million project. . . .” (Excerpted from Lancaster New Era, Oct. 13, 2005)
Yet on October 31st, Pat Brogan, who had come over as chief-of-staff from State Rep. Mike Sturla’s office to be director of “Campaign Issues & Communications” in Gray’s campaign, wrote to Field: “If elected, Rick Gray will convene a group of objective individuals to discuss how this project can be moved forward in an expedited manner. If this group determines that the project cannot proceed on a timely basis, Mr. Gray [will] work with the group to develop an alternate plan.”
Nevertheless, on December 09, 2005, only weeks before being sworn in and after reading a memo from the firm that performed a market study of the project disavowing the current enlarged project, Gray said again: “We’re taking a good look at the project right now with the idea of whether we can move it ahead or not.”
Twenty-five days later, one day after being sworn in, Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray strode into the Farm & Home Center, where the three new county appointees had called a special public meeting to hear from the public on the project.
The room was filled with more than two hundred citizens, the overwhelming majority opponents of the project.
The audience quieted as the new Mayor approached the microphone. Then in sharp, combative, almost hostile tones, Gray voiced strong support for the project and his frustration at project opponents for trying to stop it.
“Where are your alternatives?” he snarled. “If we don’t use this money it’s going somewhere else. If we don’t use it, it’s gone.”
The crowd was stunned. A few clapped. Some booed. Most were quiet. Then Gray turned and rolled out of the room. But the time was not far when the new mayor would again publicly display his uncertainty.