Chapter Six: The Authority

(Sixth in a series)

“I know you’re asking a question and I’m not answering it.”

James O. Pickard, Chairman and Executive Director of Lancaster County Convention Center Authority, to an audience member at a LCCCA public board meeting, May, 2000

In addition to imposing a hotel room rental tax, the Lancaster County Commissioners established the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority (LCCCA) in their September 15, 1999, resolutions.

The LCCCA’s mandate was to administer the construction of what was then projected to be a 61,000 square foot convention center at a cost of $35 million. The proposed convention center would be adjacent, according to Lancaster Newspapers’ reports, to a $45 million “privately-owned” “four-star” “luxury” hotel, located at the site of the historic Watt & Shand building. The hotel would be owned and operated by Penn Square Partners.

Under Ordinance 45, the majority of collected tax revenue, paid monthly by the hotel and motel owners to the County Treasurer, would be remitted to the LCCCA board to spend on the project.

The Ordinance states that the LCCCA was to be comprised of a seven-member board of directors appointed by the city’s Mayor and County Commissioners. The city and county would alternate the “swing” vote on the LCCCA board every four years. The original LCCCA board had four county appointees, with three city appointments.

The four initial county appointees approved by the Lancaster County Commissioners for the LCCCA board were: James O. Pickard, the former state commerce secretary and Mayor Smithgall’s special economic advisor; W. Garth Sprecher, a senior executive of Ephrata-based D&E Communications; Camilla L. Collova, recently retired Armstrong World Industries vice president; and Paul E. Wright, retired general manager of a local Sears store.

The three city authority members named by Mayor Smithgall and approved by the Lancaster City Council were: Christina L. Hausner, an attorney; Willie Borden, Jr., an electrician and local Elks Lodge president; and E. Bradley Clark, a member of the Lancaster Campaign and vice president of Earl Realty, the parent company of Dutch Wonderland, a Lancaster County amusement park.

At its first meeting in October, 1999, after selecting officers – Pickard was named Chairman and Executive Director – the newly formed board had one item of business. The board voted on a solicitor for the Authority. The seven members unanimously approved Stevens & Lee, the firm that wrote the enabling state legislation. This was a cozy relationship from the start, as the first LCCCA offices happened to be located in the Fulton building, in the office space leased and occupied by the Lancaster branch of the law firm of Stevens & Lee.

In early 2000, the Pickard-led board began the process of purchasing the properties around the proposed location for the convention center.

The Authority was counting on $35 million in taxpayers’ money to spend; $15 million from the state grant, and $20 million from a bank loan. Room tax revenues would be used for paying the debt service on the loan, and for LCCCA planning and development expenses.

In March, 2000, the LCCCA purchased four dilapidated properties 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 buying the 40,000 square foot Oblender’s Furniture store, a family-owned business 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 proposed center, and its ownership would have preferred not to sell.

Rick Atwater, the earnest, hardworking great-grandson of the founder of the business, and its executive vice-president, didn’t want to lose what took his family generations to build. Atwater, a man with a reputation of integrity, who personally had worked for Oblender’s for more than 30 years, was first approached by Chairman Pickard.

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 offered $675,000 to Atwater. This became the agreed upon price, and the deal was signed in April, 2000. Scott Spencer, a Stevens & Lee attorney, was hired by the Authority to perform the legal work.

Rick Atwater saw few options. “There was the threat of eminent domain,” said Atwater a few years later to a reporter from NewsLanc.com. “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 2000, and it was an expensive one; the Authority was being sued.

On March 24, 2000, thirty-seven county hotel and motel owners, followed through with their threat made prior to the Commissioners’ vote to impose the tax, and collectively filed a lawsuit in the court of Common Pleas in Lancaster County against the LCCCA, and the city and county of Lancaster.

The Brunswick Hotel, the original site for the center, was one of the original 37 plaintiffs in the civil court action.

The ‘Armstrong Amendment,’ surreptitiously passed in the fall of 1999 by project supporter Sen. Gibson Armstrong, modified the 1994 Convention Center Act, and virtually neutered the hoteliers’ original basis for their case.

The basic argument in the suit filed by the hoteliers was that the project presented an unfair “burden,” i.e, 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’ legal brief also charged that the Armstrong Amendment was a transparent ‘end run’ around the 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. In a few years, Farina would emerge again, and play a pivotal, backgound role in getting the project completed.

The hoteliers’ lawsuit didn’t stop the project from proceeding. In fact, it seemed to embolden the Convention Center Authority, Penn Square Partners, and project supporters. It also appeared to anger them.

After the hoteliers’ suit was filed, Lancaster Newspapers, Inc. promptly unleashed prominent stories sharply criticizing the hoteliers.

“OFFICIALS VOW TO FIGHT HOTEL LAWSUIT,” headlined the Lancaster Sunday News on the Sunday after the Friday filing.

“CENTER BACKERS SLAM LAWSUIT,” herald the Intelligencer Journal the next day.

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.”

State Sen. Gibson Armstrong, torturing the beautiful English language, also hit  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.”

Also speaking in support of the project and the Authority were Mayor Charlie Smithgall, City Council President Nelson Polite, and Tom Baldridge, president of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and head of the Lancaster Campaign.

Even Dale High waxed poetic on “our courageous and visionary authority, city, county and state leaders in this unique window of opportunity, we can restore economic vitality to our county seat.”  (His firms were to receive millions in management fees from the LCCCA, tens of millions in construction contracts, extraordinary benefits from long term concession contracts, and end up as equitable owners with the Lancaster Newspapers, Inc. of the Marriott Hotel, in large part at public expense, and deriving exceptional benefits from contracts with the LCCCA.)

Opponents of the project or “regular” Lancaster County citizens were not quoted in the articles.  IS THIS CORRECT?

The Lancaster Newspapers’ response to hotelier resistance to the project was the journalistic equivalent to the military tactic of a ’shock and awe’ campaign. It would not be the last time LNP, and its partners in business, employed this tactic of war on what they viewed as enemies of their project.  SOME EXAMPLES  PLEASE.

Jim Pickard ran LCCCA meetings with an imperious gavel.

As chairman, Pickard displayed a penchant for ejecting  the audience from an ongoing LCCCA meeting, while he held executive sessions with only board members and the solicitor – Stevens & Lee partner, and County Attorney, John Espenshade – present. These ‘executive session’ actions caused the attendees and reporters to stand out in the hallway for extended periods until Pickard re-convened the public part of the meeting. (This was a practice later used often by Ted Darcus, a successor to Pickard as LCCCA chair.)

The meetings themselves were often testy and oddly rude exchanges for a community with a reputation for civility. If a hotelier made a public comment during a meeting, and they were often the only members of the public there, Pickard would announce, before the speaker spoke that the speaker was a litigant against the Authority.

Sometimes the histrionics devolved into farce. At one meeting in early May, 2001, local gadfly Ron Harper, Jr., presented Pickard with a chocolate cream pie—“humble pie,” Harper called it. With mock deference, Harper, a colorful figure and freelance journalist, placed the pie in front of Pickard, who sat in his center seat on the raised dais. In a rage, Pickard roughly grabbed the pie and threw it back toward Harper. He missed, but the entire incident was recorded by the local television news cameras and played for the folks at home. Pickard looked unhinged. The small crowd was stunned.

You’ll get no apology from this chair,” Pickard snarled at Harper. Pickard was criticized by the Lancaster Newspapers, and later apologized for his actions (but not to Harper) at the next meeting.

The hotelier litigation provided Pickard the justification to prohibit the board from answering questions from the public during LCCCA meetings. But the policy proved to be public relations problem, one that eventually forced Pickard to address.

Pickard wrote a public “clarification” published in the Lancaster Newspapers:

We wish to clarify what the public comment section of the agenda is for — and will add this above point of clarification to all of our agendas. We also wish to clarify what the ‘public comment’ portion of the agenda is NOT: It is not a question and answer session. It is not an opportunity for plaintiffs or defendants in a lawsuit to conduct discovery. The Authority has complied with all the requirements of Sunshine Act and welcomes public input and comment during our meetings. It is not the intention of the Authority to avoid being responsive to legitimate questions, but the lawsuit filed by the hoteliers has had a chilling effect on our ability to respond. We have been advised by our legal counsel that it is inappropriate to respond to questions or comments from the public that impact the pending litigation. …” [capitalization in original]

In a rarely critical comment against the LCCCA, a Sunday News editorial (“Misguided Policy, The Convention Center Authority Overreacts To Requests For Information About The Project”) suggested the Authority board open itself up to questions from the public.

The external pressure didn’t faze Pickard, who refused to answer questions, from anyone, regarding the authority’s finances, including the status of the authority’s budget or its building plans.

During 2000 and part of 2001, the LCCCA’s “public” meetings were held at the Duke Street County Courthouse, in both the County Commissioners’ meeting room, and the tiny Commissioners conference room, where there were, at times, no seats available to the public. By mid-2001, the meetings moved to the City Council Chambers at the cavernous Southern Market Center on Vine Street.

Meeting attendees usually included only board members, whose attendance was often sporadic, and scant members of the public.

Ron Harper, Jr. was one of the few citizens regularly present at those early meetings, as were a small number of hotel and motel owners, such as Rodney Gleiberman of the Continental Inn and Peter Chiccarine, of the Best Western Eden Resort. Both Gleiberman and Chiccarine’s hotels were plaintiffs against the LCCCA.

In a letter to the Lancaster New Era, Mark Clossey, former General Manager of the Lancaster Host Resort and Hotel, also a litigant against the Authority, wrote:

When you cannot ask questions at a public meeting, and are silenced for asking for more information, it reflects how wrong the project truly is. I have never been allowed to enter the arena since a few politicians and bureaucrats said the hotel and convention center is going to be built. I guess that means at any expense. This type of process defeats such projects, not a lawsuit.”

At one LCCCA meeting during 2000, LCCCA, after Clossey asked a question during the public comment portion, Pickard glared at Clossey.

“I’m not obliged to answer any of your questions,” Pickard said, adding:“The question you just asked falls in the classification of not being responded to.”

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Chapter Seven: Razing History

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