By Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig
When former LCCCA Chairman and Executive Director, James Pickard, said in 2002 that it was “all-out war,” regarding the Lancaster convention center and hotel project, he was off by three years.
Prior to 2005, the main opponents of the convention center project were Lancaster County hotelier litigants, intrepid independent investigator, Ron Harper, Jr. and a handful of “nay sayers,” as they were dubbed by project sponsors.
The TIF debate changed that. The property tax abatement plan for the “private” hotel was an unlikely front-page story for weeks leading up to the March 15th School Board of Lancaster vote. All three Lancaster Newspapers’ editorial pages supported the Penn Square Partners’ proposal, even as public sentiment appeared to overwhelmingly oppose it.
The public meetings held around the TIF proposal attracted hundreds of audience members from the larger Lancaster County community. From that group emerged two people who would take on the issue on as concerned citizens, and, despite appearances, both had a lot of fight in them.
April Koppenhaver, in 2005, was a single mother in her late forties. She owned and ran a large, bustling art gallery and studios collective in Lancaster city called Mulberry Art Studios.
‘April,’ as she was known, was a hyperkinetic dervish of a woman who had not been involved in local politics to this point. But the TIF issue raised her awareness of the project.
It was at a public meeting leading up to the school board TIF vote where Koppenhaver’s fire was ignited.
“I was indifferent about the project until I learned that the financing had changed, that the public was now on the hook for most of the investment,” Koppenhaver said.
“And when I heard Nevin Cooley stand up at the school board meeting and tell us this was our ‘one and only’ hope, that really boiled my skin. He didn’t see the problems with putting a huge hotel and convention center in the middle of this particular city. He didn’t see how this project would hurt other good things starting to happen downtown. If he wanted to put up a hotel and convention center that won’t work, fine, but don’t expect the public to pay for his bad idea. That’s really what it came down to for me.”
After the TIF vote, April Koppenhaver followed the project closely. She began attending as many of the LCCCA, City Council, and County Commissioners meetings she could fit into her schedule. Soon, she was speaking out at them. Sometimes April lost her cool. She demanded answers at LCCCA meetings. She called people names. But she kept coming.
Koppenhaver was joined at these meetings by a seemingly mild-mannered Lancaster City resident named Randolph D. Carney. Carney, too, became interested in the issue because of the TIF vote.
“The TIF issue really bothered me because it was giving a major property tax break to a private business, violating one of the most important promises made to taxpayers about this project” Carney said. “Then I started looking at the agreements and contracts, and became really concerned about the risk to taxpayers. And it was obvious that the people involved in the project were doing everything they could to avoid answering any serious questions.”
Carney, a computer savvy Field Service Engineer for Eastman Kodak, launched a website, LancasterFirst.org, along with Koppenhaver and Ron Harper, Jr. The website became a source for documents, commentary, and news related to the convention center project. It was Carney who meticulously maintained and updated the site.
Randy Carney also spoke up at the public meetings. Where Koppenhaver would often speak emotionally and sometimes crazily at the microphone (she once called the LCCCA board “Nazis”), Carney would offer his comments and questions calmly, reasonably.
But Carney’s remarks were usually incisive, and often more familiar with the subject matter than those on the dais to whom he was speaking, and who were to vote on the measures he was addressing.
Carney’s biggest impact on the project was his online persona: “Artie See.”
Under the Artie See pseudonym (a semantic play using his initials, RDC), Carney posted several hundred posts on Lancaster Newspapers’ own website, LancasterOnline.com, known by its unfortunate (and unintentionally self-mocking) acronym, “LOL.”
The LancasterOnline posts reveal a serious thinker, one who took the time to obtain, read, and digest many of the original documents. There is no one in the opposition to the project who was as conversant with the esoteric details of the project as Randy Carney.
Carney would not only explain on the LOL website what the documents said, but how and where the newspapers got it wrong, which was often. In his posts, Carney relentlessly pointed out the “smoke and mirrors” of the project’s financing.
(After the project was built, Carney was elected the board of directors of the School District of Lancaster.)
There were other citizens, some quite reputable, who were joining the ranks of the opposition. Some of those people included: Tom Despard, a successful, highly-regarded Lancaster real estate developer; Victor Capecce, Yale-educated with experience staging large trade shows; R.B. Campbell, the Lancaster city controller, who publicly questioned the hotel’s financing; and one prickly, millionaire philanthropist and activist named Robert Edwin Field.
Until 2005, Robert Field, was mostly unknown to the general Lancaster County public, a place that had been his home and “sanctuary” for almost 40 years.
The Philadelphia-born-and-raised Field was a man of unusual accomplishment. After graduating at the head of the economics department with a degree from UC Berkeley, Field turned down an unsolicited two-year graduate fellowship at Cambridge University in England in order to enter the business world.
Field’s plan was to focus on business success, then turn his attention to more political and philanthropic matters.
As founder of the Lancaster-based The Manor Group, “a family of independent companies,” Field developed, built and managed eleven large apartment complexes and four hotels in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States.
In 1980, Field served as Arlen Specter’s finance chairman during Specter’s first (and successful) run for the United States Senate. Specter was a fraternity brother at the University of Pennsylvania of Field’s older brothers and was often a dinner visitor to the Field home from the time that Robert was thirteen.
Although not an illegal drug user (he says he enjoys a glass a wine with dinner), Field became a leader in national and international drug policy reform through Common Sense for Drug Policy, which he founded with Kevin Zeese. He says he could not understand why we were repeating the same mistake of alcohol prohibition.
In 1985, Field, along Millersville (PA) University professors Melvin Allen and Leon Miller, co-founded Project Forward Leap, a multi-year, summer academic enrichment program targeting promising, at-risk, inner-city children that is now in its 24th year.
For his work with Project Forward Leap and Common Sense for Drug Policy, Field received the prestigious Crystal Stair award from the University of Pennsylvania. The award, from the university’s Department of Social Work, is given to those who “worked passionately for social justice and the elimination of prejudice and oppression.”
Field was the originator and sponsor of a CARE program providing small libraries in schools throughout Afghanistan and Guatemala. Field also serves as Director of the American House Foundation, providing food aid to thousands of children in Hungary.
In recent years, Field and Rep. Mike Sturla were prime mover in the deregulation of the sale of syringes in Pennsylvania.
Field also is the founder and publisher of NewsLanc.com.
Field owned no hotels in Lancaster County, and thus had ‘no dog in the fight’ concerning the current downtown project.
But now, in early 2005, the commotion surrounding the Lancaster convention center and hotel project attracted his attention.
“Our firm had twice over a decade looked into buying the Brunswick Hotel,” said Field. “But we declined because we recognized the scant market for a downtown hotel. I came to feel morally compelled to raise questions about building yet another hotel in the same market.”
In April, 2005, Field went to the office of Rufus Fulton, CEO of Fulton Bank, and a limited partner in Penn Square Partners, to discuss the project. Field was acquainted with Fulton and the two were on cordial, first-name terms.
At the meeting, Fulton candidly expressed his own skepticism about the hotel project, whose bank held the smallest stake in Penn Square Partners and referred Field to Jack Buckwalter, Chairman of Lancaster Newspapers. Buckwalter, in turn, suggested that Field meet with Dale High, CEO of High Industries, and the general partner of Penn Square Partners.
The three meetings took place over a four-day period.
Field recalled the meetings:
“My conversation with Rufus gave me reason to believe that he lacked confidence in the convention center project. I surmised that Fulton felt obliged to go along with major clients of the bank by taking a small partnership interest.
“Jack [Buckwalter], at the newspaper, explained that he had been immersed over the past year in directing other Steinman enterprises, and had left the convention center project in the hands of Dale High.
“When I met with High, I asked Dale if there was a feasibility study, and he said ‘Yes,’ but he declined to let me see it. According to Dale, he had assurances from major firms that they would move to downtown provided the convention center project went ahead. High’s explanation of why the new hotel would succeed struck me as: ‘If we build it, they will come.’ ”
“I reported back to Jack concerning my meeting with Dale, the highlight being: ‘Of greater concern is my impression from Dale that the hotel will only come near meeting its break-even occupancy levels if the ground breaking triggers others to move ahead to establish business downtown. Dale says there are some positive indications that this will happen.’”
“Dale then wrote to me with a copy to Jack as follows: ‘When I spoke of other projects already being considered for the City by other investors, I mentioned that I felt one of the really positive values of our project would be spin-off development for revitalization. I indicated that it would be a disappointment to the Community and to me if that did not happen. This is not to suggest that I was saying the hotel would not be successful as a result.’ ”
“I responded to Dale with a copy to Jack in a detailed letter relating my recollection, having taken notes soon afterwards. In part I wrote: ‘You indicated there had been feasibility reports on the proposed hotel but from your body language and terse description I got the impression that they were not that determinative.’ ”
“I also reminded Dale: ‘You stated that the hotel and convention center would trigger a downtown revival and draw new restaurants and shops….You mentioned the praise and encouragement you have received from other business leaders and indications from them that they would also invest downtown…’”
After these exchanges with the “private” sponsors of the project, Field’s concerns about the project deepened.
On October 2nd, Field shared his thoughts on the project in an op-ed piece in the Perspective Section of the Sunday News. Pointing to his own experience, and noting low downtown Lancaster hotel occupancy levels, Field argued that the downtown Lancaster market could not support two hotels.
Regarding the push to build the downtown convention center, Field wrote:
“Is the downtown situation so unpromising that we have to do ‘something,’ no matter how great the subsidy, how much is put at risk, and how questionable the prospects for success?”
There was another aspect of the project that brought t Field into the convention center battle. Field bristled at newspaper reports suggesting only a few dissident Lancaster County citizens objected to the project.
“In October , I read in the Lancaster Newspapers that the only a small group of obstructionists opposed the convention center project,” he said. “I didn’t, for a moment, believe that based upon my experience elsewhere.”
Field went to Fox-43 television in York, and encouraged them to sponsor a public opinion survey (at Field’s expense.) The questions were developed by Fox-43 and Opinion Dynamics, which performed surveys for the Fox network among many other national clients.
The startling revelation of the Fox-43 poll was that 78% of those with an opinion disapproved of the county guaranteeing any portion of the convention center bond issue.
Very dissatisfied with how the newspaper reported the principal findings of the report, Field paid several thousand dollars for a half-page advertisement in the morning Intelligencer Journal and afternoon Lancaster New Era for the publication of the entire report, word for word.
But this was not the end of Field’s involvement in the project. He was soon focused on all aspects of it, particularly the project’s purported “feasibility.” This would next draw his attention.
The sponsors of the project did not take the new citizen opposition passively. They fought back. And they did so with unconventional tactics.