Chapter Fourteen: Citizens Brigade: Opposition gets reinforcements

(Fourteenth in a series)

“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 [convention center-hotel] project were doing everything they could to avoid answering any serious questions.”

– Randolph D. Carney, aka Artie See, on what prompted him to get involved in opposing the convention center-hotel project.

Questions about the TIF proposal and other tax breaks for the hotel and convention center project awakened not only the concerns of Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson, but also those of an increasing number of regular Lancaster citizens.

Until this point, early spring, 2005, opposition to the project was thought to be limited to a small group of dogged hoteliers, who continued to challenge the legality of the room tax; activist Ron Harper, Jr., and a handful of mostly silent “nay sayers.”

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 vote. All three Lancaster Newspapers’ editorial pages supported the Penn Square Partners’ proposal presented to the school board.

The public meetings right before, and on the night of, the TIF vote attracted hundreds of audience members from both sides of the issue. From that group emerged two citizens 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. Koppenhaver owned a burgeoning art gallery and studios collective in Lancaster city.

‘April,’ a hyperkinetic dervish of a woman, had not been involved in local politics to this point. But the TIF issue raised her awareness of the project.

It was at one of the public meetings leading up to the school board TIF vote that Koppenhaver’s fire was lit.

“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, recalling the changes in the project’s financing.

“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 immediately began to attending as many of the LCCCA, City Council, and County Commissioners meetings she could fit into her schedule, and some she couldn’t. She soon was speaking out at them.

Then Koppenhaver, with a few others opponents of the project, started a loose-knit band of citizens to get information out about the project named Lancaster First. This group, which had the website domain name LancasterFirst.org, stayed in touch about the issue via email distribution. They began showing up at meetings in greater numbers, letting the community know their side of the issue.

Koppenhaver was joined in these efforts 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 is also a computer savvy Field Service Engineer, and it was he along with Koppenhaver and Ron Harper, Jr. who started Lancaster First.

Carney also spoke up at the public meetings. Where Koppenhaver would often speak emotionally and sometimes disjointedly at the microphone, Carney would make his comments and questions in a calm, clear tone of voice. But the remarks were often incisive, cogent, and often more familiar with the subject matter than the people who voted on the measures.

But Randolph Carney’s biggest impact on the project was his online persona: Artie See.

Carney, under the Artie See pseudonym (a play on words using his initials, RDC), posted literally hundreds of posts on Lancaster Newspapers’ own website, LancasterOnline.com  (LOL).

The LOL 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 is as familiar with the esoteric details of the project as 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.

Soon, some politically experienced and reputable citizens were joining the ranks of the opposition. Names like Tom Despard, a successful Lancaster real estate developer; Victor Capecce, Yale-educated with experience in trade shows; Randolph Harris, then the well-regarded director of the Historic Preservation Trust; and Robert Field, a wealthy investor/developer/activist, who would use decades of experience to challenge the project’s feasibility.

Other officials joined Shellenberger and Henderson in speaking out against the project. Republican city councilman, Luis Mendoza, a sweet-natured Colombian, was one, and Robert B. “RB” Campbell, the city controller, was another.

In fact, Campbell pressed the matter to the point where he himself became a target of project sponsors.

It was now a civic civil war in Lancaster. And political blood would be shed.

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Chapter Fifteen: Not Just an Act: The sweetheart deal of Act 23

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