By Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig
Whether by design or not, the Conestoga View story effectively pushed the convention center off the front pages in the last half of 2005.
The legal sale of a county asset and a personnel matter utterly dominated the news in Lancaster County during this period.
But there was news relating to the convention center project, and it concerned the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority (LCCCA) board of directors.
On September 1st, 2005, the LCCCA board of directors would have been firmly counted in the sponsors’ column.
Since the LCCCA’s inception in 1999, both the Lancaster County Commissioners and the Lancaster city mayor’s office were controlled by strong supporters of the project. This meant that sponsors were able to name all seven members to the LCCCA board. And the decisions the LCCCA board made consistently reflected their sponsors’ positions on the project.
In 2003, as LCCCA terms ended, Commissioners Thibault and Shaub, and Mayor Smithgall, were again able to appoint or re-appoint those who reflected their strong support of the project.
One problem the sponsors did not anticipate until 2007 was the composition, and cooperation, of the LCCCA board. In 2007, the ’swing vote’ would revert to the County – now effectively Shellenberger and Henderson. That was when the sponsors expected the County Commissioners would pose a problem to the LCCCA board.
It happened earlier than the sponsors anticipated.
On, September 1st, the three county-appointed board members were: Judy Ware, John Fry, and Garth Sprecher.
Ware, whose four-year term was ending on September 15th, 2005, was regarded as an enthusiastic supporter of the project. Although Ware and the sponsors wanted her re-appointed to the LCCCA board, Shellenberger and Henderson chose to replace Ware when her term expired.
Ware’s replacement on the LCCCA board was Laura Clampitt Douglas, a tough, smart, Texas-born businesswoman who didn’t suffer fools. At Douglas’ first LCCCA board meeting, she peppered board chairman, Ted Darcus, and executive director, Dave Hixson, with questions and comments on invoices the board was paying. Normally, the board paid the bills without discussion.
John Fry, president of Franklin & Marshall College, was appointed to replace Jim Pickard on the LCCCA board in 2003. Fry, like Judy Ware, was known as a committed supporter of the downtown project.
It was assumed Fry’s term ran until 2007. Pickard’s seat was a four-year appointment. However, when Fry was named to the LCCCA board at a regular Commissioners’ meeting in October, 2003, it was mistakenly 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.
One afternoon in late September, 2005, with these two documents – the Commissioners’ meeting minutes and the confirmation letter – Commissioner Shellenberger brought County Treasurer and fellow Republican, Craig Ebersole, to meet with John Fry. Shellenberger showed Fry 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 replace Fry on 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.
On October 15th, 2005, businessman Garth Sprecher, one of only two original board members still serving on the LCCCA board, announced he was resigning from the board.
“Don’t read anything into this,” Sprecher said of his resignation at his last LCCCA meeting. “I’m just tired.”
Sprecher’s seat was temporarily filled by Timothy Lease, 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 top-level experience in the hospitality industry, including management of The Plaza Hotel in New York City.
The changing faces of the LCCCA board meant that the days of unquestioned ‘rubber stamping’ of agreements and consultants’ fees had ended.
The addition of county appointees Laura Douglas, Deb Hall, and Jack Craver to the LCCCA also promised to make it a much more confrontational board.
“We selected these people because they are going to ask questions that we’re not getting answers to,” said Shellenberger. “We hope the [LCCCA] board would answer their questions.”
Aside from surly chairman, Ted Darcus, the other three LCCCA city appointees were notable for not being noticed. Willie Borden Jr. was the only original member still on the LCCCA board. Borden barely spoke at the meetings, and almost never voted against Pickard and the majority of the board. His was a dependable vote. Borden held the board position of Treasurer.
Dave Schwanger co-owned a successful heating oil company. Schwanger was a personal friend of Lancaster Mayor Charlie Smithgall. Schwanger’s presence on the LCCCA was less noticeable than the taciturn, Borden. Schwanger, too, voted with the other city members en bloc.
The fourth city-appointed LCCCA appointee was Joseph Morales. Morales worked as an instructor and administrator for an education services organization that served public and private schools in Lancaster and Lebanon counties. For a brief period, Morales was also the director of the Lancaster Alliance.
Morales was more vocal during public meetings than either Borden or Schwanger, occasionally commenting on an agreement, or making a statement, but, he like the other city appointees almost never broke rank when it came time to vote.
So, while the city appointees, with the exception of Ted Darcus were not demonstrative, and none had expertise in the hotel or convention center industry, there was little question how they saw their roles on the board. They were there to support the project unquestioningly.
The divide between the city and county appointees on the LCCCA board was used by supporters of the project as an example of the County Commissioners’ anti-city bias. This rankled the normally pleasant Shellenberger.
“I always had a problem with the idea that I was ‘anti-city,‘” Shellenberger said after he left office.“I was very familiar with the city, and I wanted to do what was best for the city. We [the Commissioners] supported Clipper Magazine Stadium, invested in the Northwest Corridor, and other important city projects. Again, the convention center involved county taxpayers’ money, and we didn’t want the public’s money wasted, or poorly spent.”
Although the LCCCA board was divided 4-3 in favor of the sponsors, with Hixson and Espenshade, it was more like a 6-3 division, with the sponsors controlling the Executive Director, Chairman, and Solicitor positions.
Whether it was a one vote, or three vote advantage, for the time being, sponsors of the project controlled the LCCCA board. Holding that advantage would not be easy.