The bleak future of downtown Lancaster
What is done is done. We cannot go back and correct the biggest mistake in the history of the city and county: The development of an oversized, overly costly hotel and convention center on the valuable Watt and Shand site rather than, as had been recommend by the 1988 Winterbottom Report , a smaller convention center at Lancaster Square to revive the Brunswick Hotel and a mixed use residential / commercial development on the Watt and Shand site.
Based upon my half century of experience in development and management of residential and commercial real estate and years of study and reflection about downtown Lancaster’s problems and opportunities from the perch of NewsLanc.com, here is what I foresee happening over the next two decades:
WITHIN FIVE YEARS: Because the value of land alone now exceeds the value of the land with improvements, the Redevelopment Authority of Lancaster will have acquired and razed all of the Lancaster Square block apart from the parking garage. The vacant site will be developed into upscale mid-rise condominium apartments with some townhouses to add variety. Its success will encourage further upscale development for blocks as far north as Lancaster General Hospital.
WITHIN TEN YEARS: The current Marriott Hotel will operate under a less prestigious franchise flag or as an independent. Based upon its economics, the owner, the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Lancaster (RACL), and the tenant, Penn Square Partners (PSP), will not spend upwards of $10 million required to meet evolving high and expensive Marriott Standards.
BETWEEN TEN AND FIFTEEN YEARS: The current Lancaster Newspapers offices fronting on the first block of South Queen Street will be vacant. Although it will be one of the last dailies nationwide to cease publishing a traditional newspaper, the flight of subscribers and advertisers to the Internet will eventually only justify the relatively small scale publication of its LancasterOnLine.com. A vacant newspaper building across from a convention center that is dormant two-thirds of the year will create a totally dead block and further block gentrification to the south.
BETWEEN FIFTEEN AND TWENTY-FIVE YEARS: The convention center will cease operations and perhaps be razed, PSP will have terminated its lease/ option, and the city owned hotel will repeat the experience of the former Hilton and current Brunswick, struggling to fill rooms and deferring necessary renovations. Both county and city taxpayers will have to pay off the bonds they have guaranteed from general tax revenues.
The above assumes:
1) Somehow the Convention Center’s $2 million to $3 million annual deficit (once allowance is made for a ‘Reserve For Renovations’) will be somehow offset. To increase the Hotel Room Sales Tax would be unconscionable since county hotels have already been injured by the 5% tax and have lost appreciable business due to competition from the Marriott and the Convention Center. From where funds are to come presents a formidable challenge for the Convention Center Authority and the County Commissioners. Presumably within the next month we will hear about this from the county commissioners.
2) The above assumes that the Marriott Hotel is currently operating at least close to break even and thus will not be handed over to RACL at a much earlier date.