By Christian Hart-Nibbrig
The controversies that attended the first year and a half of the convention center and hotel project only intensified into its second year.
The first skirmish of 2001 (apart from the hotelier lawsuit) involved the poorly maintained but structurally sound buildings at Vine and Queen Streets purchased the year before by the LCCCA.
These were not every day buildings. They happened to be the former home and business of one of the greatest Americans in the history of the United States — Thaddeus Stevens.
Stevens, a severe-looking, bald (due to disease), club-footed Republican Congressman during the Civil War and Reconstruction, was a moving force behind of the 13th , 14th , and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Those amendments – abolishing slavery, giving African-Americans citizenship, and providing African-Americans with the right to vote – are as historically consequential as any in the nation’s history.
Thaddeus Stevens is also credited with establishing widespread free public education in Pennsylvania. For decades, Stevens ran a successful law practice in Lancaster from the Queen and Vine Street location.
Arguably, Stevens is the most important American to call Lancaster home, even more impactful than James Buchanan, the country’s 15th President. Unike Stevens’ home, which had been left to neglect, Buchanan’s former residence, “Wheatland,” just west of the city, had been lovingly restored.
Another of the buildings acquired by the LCCCA belonged to Thaddeus Stevens’ longtime confidante, the mixed-race, Lydia Hamilton Smith. Smith, apart from being a pioneering black businesswoman, was also said to have been a ‘conductor’ on Harriet Tubman’s ‘Underground Railroad’ network, helping fugitive slaves escape the slave holding South.
The problem confronting the LCCCA was that the location of the proposed convention center was on top of the home and business of one of the most important Americans who ever lived.
Randolph Harris was the Executive Director of the Lancaster Historic Preservation Trust during these years. Harris, a Yale-educated historian, appreciated Stevens’ significance. Harris also knew that the Historic Preservation Trust owned easements on those properties, requiring the Trust’s approval for any alteration to the buildings.
In 1983, the easements had been signed over to the Trust by the last owners of the buildings.
In December, 1999, soon after the LCCCA board was formed, Harris wrote a letter to chairman Pickard advising him of the Trust’s easements. Pickard did not respond, and by June, 2000, all of the properties were purchased by the Authority.
In early January, 2001, the Historic Preservation Trust announced a proposal to create a “Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith National Historic Landmark” on the properties. The Trust recommended that the LCCCA restore all of the buildings and create a museum around the Stevens/Hamilton theme.
Pickard announced the next month that the Authority would preserve the building facades.
“Those facades, at the very least, will have to be incorporated into the architecture of the convention center building,” Pickard was quoted in the Lancaster New Era. “Overall, the aesthetics will fit in. Even though it’s going to be a new building, we want it to reflect the heritage of Lancaster.”
Pickard clearly bristled at having to address the Stevens property issue. He stated the Convention Center Authority was unaware of the easements when it purchased the buildings in March of 2000.
Pickard blamed the company overseeing the sale, Commonwealth National Title Insurance Co., for not making the Authority aware of the easements. The LCCCA planned to raze the buildings entirely, until Harris objected, citing the easements.
The Convention Center Authority and Historic Preservation Trust explored the possibility of integrating the historic buildings into the convention center design. But center planners objected, concerned that it would reduce the size, and jeopardize the viability of the project.
In April 2001, after negotiating with the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Lancaster (RACL), the LCCCA board voted unanimously to invoke eminent domain and relocate – as in physically transport – the whole of the three historical buildings across the street to a vacant parking lot behind the Swan Hotel.
“For one public body to be making a decision with another public body in a vacuum, without consulting with people who know about historic preservation law, is not wise,” Harris fumed after the meeting to move the buildings.
“This was scripted, orchestrated, ad infinitum,” Harris said,“(the LCCCA) wanted to make the perception we were all engaged in this discussion. But it’s a smokescreen. It’s bogus.”
Even staunch project proponent, State Sen. Gibson Armstrong, objected to moving the buildings. Armstrong, whose wife sat on the board of directors of the Historic Preservation Trust, publicly questioned moving the buildings. “We don’t need any more lawsuits and we don’t need any more problems,” the Senator said to the New Era.
The rhetoric and public relations campaigning on both sides of the historical building issue got heated.
In May, 2001, Pickard sharply criticized a mayor from South Carolina who publicly spoke about preserving the buildings where they were. Pickard blamed the Trust for “lobbying” for its side.
For the time being, the issue was effectively resolved on May 22, 2001, when the RACL board voted unanimously to nullify the Stevens/Smith easements held by the Trust. The Intelligencer Journal reported: “Nullifying the easements on the historic properties is valid, as long as the convention center authority buys the Swan Hotel,” said Thomas Weber, RACL chairman.
If the controversy over the Stevens/Smith buildings and the hoteliers’ lawsuit were among the first early skirmishes in the convention center civil war, then the fight over who would manage the taxpayer-financed convention center was its first major battle – Lancaster’s Bull Run.
In January, 2001, the LCCCA board mailed approximately 20 requests for proposals to potential managers of the convention center.
Both the Ernst & Young and Pricewaterhouse market reports recommended a single or “common” manager for the hotel and convention center.
By March, the board had winnowed the number to five firms, and by May, three companies made the ’short list’ as finalists: Spectacor Management Group, Global Spectrum; and Interstate Hotels.
All three firms were based in Pennsylvania, and experienced managing large and small conference and convention centers nationally.
Spectacor, headquartered in Philadelphia, had the most experience with convention centers, managing dozens of public and privately-owned centers, including several of the largest facilities in Pennsylvania.
Global Spectrum, also based in Philadelphia, managed the Philadelphia Convention Center, among other large centers.
Interstate, a Pittsburgh-based company, had a long partnership with Marriott Hotels, and also managed many large conference centers and several convention centers across the country.
In May, and again in August, 2001, the Greater Lancaster Hotel and Motel Association (GLHMA) sent a letter to Pickard and the LCCCA board urging a separate manager for the convention center, distinct from the still-unnamed hotel operator.
On July 24, Penn Square Partners announced that Marriott had been selected as the hotel ‘flag’ under which its hotel would be built, and that Interstate would manage the hotel.
The next day, July 25, Nevin Cooley, High Associates executive and Penn Square Partners President, urged the LCCCA board to select Interstate as joint manager of both the hotel and convention center.
This is when the battle exploded.
The fight was staged on the front pages of Lancaster Newspapers, which found itself with a hot news story in the usually slow ‘dog days’ of August.
Cooley, the doughy, longtime spokesman and ‘right-hand man’ of Dale High, argued that through shared physical space, personnel, promotion, bookings, and other overlapping functions, that the LCCCA could save more than $600,000. This represented more than 40 percent of the estimated LCCCA annual budget.
In Cooley’s appeal to the Authority board, he said – but did not provide a letter or statement corroborating his claim – that Marriott gave Penn Square Partners three months to complete contracts between itself, Interstate, and the Authority. Cooley added that common management was a condition Marriott was placing on its involvement with the project.
A Marriott executive, Roger Conner, in a late August interview with the Intelligencer Journal, contradicted this suggestion, saying, “Marriott does not dictate who must manage convention centers attached to Marriott hotels. We do not have a requirement that we must manage or our franchisee must manage every convention center that’s attached to our hotels. It would be pretty difficult to presume that any policy of such would exist.”
Cooley seemed to have a sympathetic ear in Chairman Pickard, who said at the LCCA meeting, “The two projects are more or less joined at the hip.”
Through the month of August, the debate between common and separate managers for the convention center was regularly featured on the front pages of Lancaster Newspapers.
On August 9, the Intelligencer Journal ran a banner front-page headline and article:
SPECTACOR MAKES PITCH TO MANAGE CONVENTION CENTER, WARNS OF POSSIBLE CONFLICT IF HOTEL’S FIRM IS IN CHARGE
The next week, on August 15, the Tourism Task Force came back with its recommendation. By a vote of 7-2, the Task Force recommended Spectacor manage the convention center. The two Task Force members to dissent and vote for Interstate were Jack Howell, director of the Lancaster Alliance, and Deirdre Simmons, a director of the Fulton Theatre, who admitted she did not read nor reviewed any of the proposals.
On the same day the LCCCA’s Task Force recommended Spectacor, the Lancaster New Era ran a front-page item:
WILL PANEL TAKE ADVICE ON FIRM TO RUN CENTER?
The article suggested that the LCCCA might ignore the recommendation of the panel it appointed.
On August 16, 2001, a group of hoteliers wrote a letter to Chairman Pickard recommending Spectacor (SMG):
“We experienced SMG’s proposal first hand and found their presentation compelling. We left the meeting optimistic that SMG’s expertise in operating similar Convention Centers coupled with Interstate’s proven track record in successful hotel management will provide the Penn Square Project the best management team possible.”
On August 17, the Intelligencer Journal published an article, “Willow Valley weighs in on manager bid” describing how the management of the Willow Valley Resort, which had been in lockstep with the Partners and the Authority until this point, recommended Spectacor and separate management.
Penn Square Partners went on the offensive, and used a tactic it would employ again and again in the future. The Partners threatened to abandon the project entirely if Interstate wasn’t selected.
On Sunday morning, August 19th, readers of the Sunday News were greeted with this front-page headline:
DOWNTOWN HOTEL TEETERS ON BRINK // PARTNERS IN WATT & SHAND BUILDING WILL PULL OUT IF CONVENTION CENTER AUTHORITY TAKES ADVICE OF TOURISM TASK FORCE FOR SEPARATE MANAGEMENT AND FACILITIES
In a letter to the Authority board, signed by all three Penn Square Partners, the Partners wrote:
“Despite the naysayers, Penn Square Partners persisted by investing substantial time, effort and money to promote this vision for a better Lancaster. The opponents chose to litigate and undermine the collaborative efforts proposed by Penn Square Partners and the authority. Their sole goal was to delay, postpone and destroy the project and the corresponding benefits to the community.”
The letter, much of which was printed in the Sunday News article, continued:
“If the authority board accepts the recommendation from the task force, Marriott will require the hotel to compete directly with the convention center for meeting and ballroom business.
…It is the authority’s fiduciary responsibility to create a structure that optimizes the long-term economic viability of the convention center. To recommend otherwise is shortsighted, narrowly focused and only beneficial to the self-interest of a few hoteliers in the community. … Penn Square Partners will not be party to a structure that endangers the economic feasibility of the hotel and convention center project. It would be a greater disservice to the project and the community to proceed under the task force’s recommendation.”
At a LCCCA meeting on August 22, three top hospitality industry experts, each with decades of experience, spoke on behalf of separate management for the public convention center.
One of the experts, Robert Butera, president and CEO of Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Convention Center, questioned whether, in fact, common management was a condition Marriott placed on Penn Square Partners.
“If that’s what it is, let’s call it that,” Butera said. “But it’s not. It’s a direct subsidy [to Penn Square Partners].”
Much of the Lancaster political and business establishment supported Interstate. These supporters included County Commissioner Paul Thibault, Richard Kneedler, President of Franklin & Marshall College: the School District of Lancaster, and, perhaps the project’s most fervent supporter, Lancaster Mayor Charlie Smithgall, who said, “I don’t care if [Spectacor] is the most spectacular convention center manager in the world. I think it’s better to have Interstate manage it than to have nothing.”
The lobbying leading up to the scheduled, Wednesday, September 12, 2001, vote was so hot that the day before the vote, September 11th , it drew the attention of Knight-Ridder.
The Knight-Ridder article (“Lobbying Intense as Lancaster, Pa., Convention Center Vote Nears”) began:
“As the vote nears on an operator for the planned Lancaster County Convention Center, the people who will be making that decision are reading letters and e-mails and answering their telephones. ‘I have never in my life received as much information about how I should vote on anything as I have in the last couple of weeks,’ said Paul E. Wright, one of seven appointed Convention Center Authority board members expected to cast their vote Wednesday morning….”
Considering the world-changing events of September 11th, 2001, it is startling that the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority would hold its scheduled meeting for September 12th.
Banks, schools, libraries – the entire country was closed; the people of the United States in collective shock the day after the terrorists’ attacks.
Yet, the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority was open for business early the very next morning
Chairman James Pickard had decided the LCCCA could not delay, by even a single day, the vote to determine which company would manage a convention center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The chambers at the Southern Market Center were unusually crowded, especially for a morning meeting. Approximately two-thirds of the audience members were in favor of Interstate managing the convention center.
Robert Butera, the industry executive who represented the Philadelphia Convention Center, bluntly told the board that Spectacor was clearly the better choice for the position of manager. The Task Force members spoke on behalf of Spectacor.
Then Dale High himself approached the microphone. High, medium height, in his mid 50s, wearing a business suit, with sloped shoulders, sandy, graying hair, with a receding hairline, with a neatly trimmed beard, spoke: “This is not a matter of us taking our ball and going home,” High said, speaking on behalf of Penn Square Partners.
Then, he compared the convention center project to the World Trade Center attack of the previous day, “As we saw with the Twin Towers; these things can be taken away in a day,” Dale High said.
After High spoke, the audience erupted into applause.
The LCCCA board voted 5-1 to give the contract to Interstate Hotels. (Bradley Clark was not present). The dissenting vote belonged to Camilla Collova, who remarked, “The fact that [Spectacor] knows how to do it elsewhere tells me they can do it here.”
Collova resigned from the board the following month, and was quoted by the Intelligencer Journal on October 25 as saying “I made this decision to resign in June. The vote [Common Manager} didn’t change anything one way or another, and I’ve felt no pressure since the vote. I didn’t feel any downside from that at all.” Clark left in September at the expiration of his term.
Mark Moosic, the Interstate executive who would be chosen to manage both facilities, said to the New Era of the board’s vote: “To me, this was a very clear decision. There are a number of synergies that can be used with one manager: minimized expenses by combining staff, sales, and operations between the two. You don’t need two separate leadership teams – two payrolls. There is also greater flexibility and efficiency with one manager.”
The future founder of NewsLanc.com, who operated hotels outside of Lancaster County, agreed.
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