The origin of the Lancaster County Convention Center begins with an obscure law called the “Pennsylvania Third-Class County Convention Center Authority Act.” The law was passed by the legislature, and signed by Governor Robert Casey on December 27, 1994.
The Act permitted local county governments of third-class counties (those with populations between 210,000-500,000) to create “Authorities,” taxpayer-subsidized bodies empowered to build and administer convention centers, and to fund the projects through a hotel and motel room rental tax.
Lancaster County, with a population of just under the half million at the time – with scores of hotels and motels, was a “Third-Class” county, and thus eligible to tap new revenue using the room tax for tourist promotion and convention center purposes.
The Convention Center Act was sponsored by house member, Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, a Republican from Berks County. The real authors – the ones who conceived and drafted the bill and the ones who would benefit from its largesse for more than a decade — were attorneys at the law firm of Stevens & Lee, a powerful Reading-based corporation. Dealing in most forms of commercial law, Stevens & Lee is also an influential lobbyist in state government. The firm represented, in 1994, a number of leading corporate interests and was solicitor of record for several local governments, including Pennsylvania counties Berks, Luzerne, and Lancaster.
According to many political observers, the Convention Center Act was later utilized in a trade-off involving a very expensive stadium bill for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that came a few years later, one strongly supported by Democrat Casey’s successor, Republican Governor Tom Ridge.
The stadium initiative, passed in a lame duck, post-election session at the end of 1998, proposed to spend $600 million public dollars to build four new sports stadia: two in Pittsburgh; two in Philadelphia. The incentive for legislators outside of those specific counties and their immediate suburbs to fund this bill was that they would receive economic development grants that would flow to projects in their communities throughout the state.
At the time, Lancaster County had two very influential senior legislators in Harrisburg: Representative John Barley and Senator Gibson “Gib” Armstrong. Barley was the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Armstrong chaired the Senate Banking Committee. Together, Barley and Armstrong, both Republicans, had been in the legislature for decades.
It has been suggested that Barley and/or Armstrong made a deal with Governor Tom Ridge, also a Republican, that Lancaster be rewarded with state money for a downtown convention center, in exchange for political support for funding the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh stadia bill. Both Barley and Armstrong were closely connected to prominent citizens (all major political contributors and volunteers), who were negotiating to purchase the large and centrally located, historic landmark Watt & Shand building, which they believed could be developed into a hotel and an adjoining convention center.
By 1995, downtown Lancaster city was several decades removed from its sparkling prime of the post-war 1940s and ’50s. As the second millennium approached, the city still had not recovered from the wholesale demolition of its historic downtown retail district on the 100 block of North Queen Street during the 1970s, its subsequent failed re-development, and the flight of customers and stores to suburban shopping centers and the Park City Mall.
The mishandled, but well-intentioned, “revitalization” of Lancaster Square no doubt scarred the community and leadership alike. For years, this area was known to locals as “our hole in the ground,” a concrete jungle of abandoned buildings and empty spaces. Lancaster Square was a constant ugly reminder of the failed efforts of administrations past. Ultimately, after much transparent public debate and with misgivings by some leaders that the projects would be feasible, a Hilton Hotel (the current Brunswick) and a Hess Department Store had been constructed as end pieces of the 100 block of North Queen Street.
The Hess Department Store closed within two years and was adapted for the manufacturing of fuses. It now stands empty.
There was not sufficient downtown business to support the Hilton, the prestigious franchise was canceled, and for decades the hotel, under different flags but now called the Brunswick, depended largely on the patronage of groups of federal government trainees bused to Lancaster from Washington D.C.
While Lancaster County can boast a substantial tourist economy, most tourists stays at scores of suburban motels and usually spend their money at the popular suburban and ex-urban outlet malls. They often seek out “Pennsylvania Dutch” cooking, tour rural roads to view the Amish, and are entertained at large, family oriented theme theaters, one of special note being Sight and Sound, a large Christian-themed live performance venue located several miles away from downtown Lancaster.
It was 1995 when the historic Watt & Shand department store building on Penn Square closed its doors forever. By that time it was the “Bon-Ton” store, the Shand family having sold the business the year before.
Bon-Ton, with a flagship in York, had wanted only the nearby Park City mall location of the Watt & Shand, but both stores were included in the deal. Bon-Ton agreed to keep the downtown store open for a short, agreed-upon time; when that time expired, the downtown location was vacated and closed for business.
The Watt & Shand Building was no ordinary retail office space. Designed by the eminent local architect, C. Emlen Urban, the Watt & Shand anchored downtown retail since 1898. Its towering columns and ornate facade was a distinguished example of the Beaux-Arts style often used by Urban.
The four-story building, with its design, size, and central location, was also a cultural touchstone for generations of Lancastrians. When it closed, combined with the continuing problems with Lancaster Square, many felt the city’s heart had stopped.
The building languished, unoccupied, for more than two years. Mayor Janice Stork, a Democrat, with the help of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster, negotiated for the acquisition of the building from Bon-Ton for use by the Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC). The Economic Development Company of Lancaster was a small non-profit group of powerful downtown Lancaster business leaders that included Lancaster Newspapers, Inc. Chairman, Jack Buckwalter. HACC wanted to locate a satellite campus in the building.
The state education department rejected a six million dollar funding request from HACC. There were also public objections to the college taking over the building. Some maintained that parking would be problematic. Some noted that HACC would be exempt from real estate tax, depriving the City and the School District of Lancaster of needed revenue. Perhaps some did not relish attracting minorities to the downtown areas, especially in the evenings.
Among those who were strongly raising these objections to the HACC plan were Arthur E. “Art” Morris, former two-term Republican mayor (and later chairman of the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority board), and Republican mayoral candidate Charlie Smithgall, a colorful, local pharmacist.
Despite much talk and effort by community leaders, two years after closing for business, the majestic Watt & Shand remained empty and dark over Penn Square.
Local business and political leaders concluded that something substantial, strategic, and coordinated must be done to resuscitate the faltering heart of the downtown Lancaster economy.
Back in June of 1993, a dozen powerful local business leaders, including S. Dale High, President and CEO of High Industries; Jack M. Buckwalter, Chairman of the monopoly Lancaster Newspapers; Rufus A. Fulton, Jr., Chairman of Fulton Bank; and nine others of similar stature, started a business and civic organization named the Lancaster Alliance.
In a few years, these three men – ‘Dale,’ ‘Jack,’ and ‘Rufus’ – would form an alliance, but for now they were part of the Lancaster Alliance’s founding board of directors.
This is how the Lancaster New Era reporter (now retired editor) Ernie Schreiber began his front-page report on the formation of the Alliance on June 27, 1993:
“The chief executives of 12 of Lancaster County’s largest corporations have launched a new organization, the Lancaster Alliance, to help improve the economy and social conditions of Lancaster City.”
In 1996, the Alliance funded and provided advisory services to a subsidiary organization, the Lancaster Campaign, that had a small paid staff to implement its vision for the city revitalization and development.
During that mayorality campaign season of 1997, when the HACC proposal was still a front-page political issue, the Lancaster Alliance through the Lancaster Campaign commissioned a study about how to revitalize the city. They hired LDR International Corp., a renowned urban planning firm based in Columbia, Maryland.
In an excited July 1, 1997, front page Lancaster New Era article (”Design doctor hired to revive city”), Bernard Harris and Steve Tranpnell wrote:
“The doctor is in.
The Lancaster Campaign hired urban designer Bert Winterbottom today to create a diagnosis and prescription for revitalizing Lancaster. Like any doctor, he plans to ask the patient about symptoms and future needs. He will interview government and business leaders and hold forums where everyone – city and county residents – can offer their ideas.”
Winterbottom and his staff took several months to perform research. They held multiple public meetings, did polls and surveys, and came up with a well publicized report, released in February of 1998.
It is a remarkable document in many aspects, including the vast scope of the plan. The Winterbottom Report, as it was called, examined and made recommendations for the revitalization of three separate sections of the city: Downtown (Lancaster Square & Penn Square); North Prince Street; and South Duke Street.
The report included a comprehensive plan that addressed such issues as streetscape enhancements, landscaping, lanes and alley rehabilitation, sidewalks, and public park improvement, new lighting, and street furnishings.
Among the proposals coming from the study was the recommendation for a “conference center,” to be located downtown, at the site of the Brunswick Hotel in the Lancaster Square section of the city. “With upgrading of the [Brunswick] hotel,” wrote Winterbottom on page 52 of the report, “there is the opportunity to create a small, state-of-the-art conference center and additional hotel space.”
This is apparently the moment in time when the convention center idea was publicly expressed for what has evolved into the current $186 million plus Convention Center/ Marriott Hotel project for downtown Lancaster.
Winterbottom’s cost estimate for his “state-of-the art-conference center” was but $6-$7 million!
This is what Winterbottom’s report said on page 55 of the Watt & Shand building:
“The Watt and Shand Building at Penn Square is the heart and soul of Downtown, Lancaster City, and the County. It is already a special place and one of great beauty, charm, interest and vitality. The challenge is to further reinforce this special place and to bring about the meaningful redevelopment of the Watt and Shand Building.”
The report goes on to recommend:
“Provide the necessary private and public support to ensure redevelopment of the Watt and Shand Building, by a private developer, as a viable mixed-use development. Re-use of the Watt and Shand Building would reinforce and support other downtown activity by providing employment and ground-level retail activity.”
Later in the same section on the Watt & Shand site, Winterbottom makes a somewhat vague reference to what was about to become the new alliance of the Fulton Bank and an affiliates of the High companies and the Lancaster Newspapers, Inc:
“As this report is being written, the ownership of the Watt and Shand Building is being transferred from the current out-of-town owners to a small local group of owners at a fair price. [emphasis added] … Local private and public leadership must be prepared to support this project with their influence and their financial resources. This will not be an easy project. . . . While outright sale and development of the property is most desirable, the owners and the community must also be prepared to consider a variety of partnership arrangements that may involve other local investors, the City, the County and the State.“ [emphasis added]
It seemed that old Bert Winterbottom knew something before many in the community did. Winterbottom died shortly after his report was released.