By Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig
In early 2000, the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority (LCCCA) began the process of purchasing properties around the proposed Penn Square convention center site.
In March, the Authority, led by Chairman Jim Pickard, bought four dilapidated buildings bordering South Queen Street, Vine, and Christian Streets. The land and buildings were purchased for a reported $539,900.
A more difficult acquisition for the Authority was the 40,000 square foot Oblender’s Furniture store. Oblender’s was a family-owned concern that had been doing business at its 37 South Queen Street location for almost 80 years. Oblender’s was situated right next door to the future center, and its ownership would have preferred not to sell.
Rick Atwater, the earnest, hardworking great-grandson of the founder, and its executive vice-president, did not want to lose what took his family generations to build. Atwater, a man with a reputation of integrity, personally worked for Oblender’s for more than 30 years.
Chairman Pickard came to Atwater with an offer of $725,000 for the Oblender property. The property had been assessed at more than $1 million three years earlier. Still, Atwater agreed on the $725,000 price.
Pickard submitted the offer to the LCCCA board. The board rejected it, and instead countered with $675,000. This became the agreed upon price, and the deal was signed in April, 2000. Scott Spencer, a Stevens & Lee attorney, was paid by the Authority to perform the legal work for the transaction.
Rick Atwater saw few options. “There was the threat of eminent domain,” said Atwater. “We felt we had little choice. If we would have fought it in court it could have taken years, and we still could have lost. I will say this, and I can’t speak about the deal because of the agreement, but we paid more than twice the settlement for our current location (Furniture that Fits, on Columbia Ave. in Manor Township) for half the space to relocate out of downtown.”
The LCCCA had another problem in the spring of 2000, and it would be an expensive one: the Authority was being sued.
On March 24th, thirty-seven Lancaster County hotel and motel owners followed through with their threat to the County Commissioners’, and collectively filed a lawsuit against the LCCCA, and the city and county of Lancaster.
The Brunswick Hotel, next to the original site for the center, was one of the 37 plaintiffs in the civil action, filed in the court of Common Pleas in Lancaster County.
The ‘Armstrong Amendment,’ surreptitiously passed in the fall of 1999 by project supporter Sen. Gibson Armstrong, modified the 1994 Convention Center Act, and neutered the hoteliers’ best legal argument. (Armstrong’s amended law allowed a competing public convention center to be built where there was an existing privately-owned one. The Act, before Armstrong’s change, expressly disallowed building a competing center.)
Now, the hoteliers’ fundamental legal argument was that the law presented them with an unfair “burden,” in the room tax; with little or no demonstrated “benefit” in the way of spillover, or added business, to the hospitality industry.
The hotel and motel owners’ also charged that the Armstrong Amendment was a transparent action, “special legislation,” intended to skirt the existing law, an abuse of power aimed solely at aiding the Lancaster project.
Court documents from the hotel and motel owners’ lawsuit ask for an immediate end to the tax, and a refund of all tax monies collected.
The case was heard by Judge Louis Farina.
The hoteliers’ lawsuit didn’t stop the project from proceeding. In fact, it seemed to embolden the Authority, Penn Square Partners, and project supporters. It also appeared to anger them.
After the hoteliers’ suit was filed, the sponsors attacked them.
“CENTER BACKERS SLAM LAWSUIT,” heralded the Intelligencer Journal on March 30th.
In the Intell article, LCCCA Chairman Pickard was quoted, saying the hotelier suit was “nothing more than a short-sighted attack on Lancaster County tourism and businesses. It is a lawsuit based on fear, a lack of understanding, self-interest and, most of all, an absence of vision.”
Pickard, torturing the English language in the Intell piece, continued his attack on the hoteliers:
“Instead of supporting our effort to help bake a bigger tourism and business ‘pie’ for all of Lancaster County, these hoteliers want to avoid any chance of a bigger pie and are fighting to keep their own selfish slivers of the status quo.”
At the Commissioners’ meeting where Pickard made his comments, Mayor Charlie Smithgall, City Council President Nelson Polite, and Tom Baldridge, now president of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Lancaster Campaign, also spoke in support of the Convention Center project.
Baldrige criticized the hotel operators for not thinking big enough. “It is being opposed by a group of hoteliers who throughout the process have stated such opinions as, ‘We are a $65-a-night hotel community and we always will be,’ and, ‘People come to Lancaster to get away from cities like Lancaster, why would they want to stay here?’” Baldrige said. “That is not the vision that Lancaster deserves.”
Even Dale High was there. High, whose firms would receive millions in management fees and other benefits from the project, waxed poetic, complimenting “our courageous and visionary authority, city, county and state leaders in this unique window of opportunity….”
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