Chapter Twenty: To build or not to build?: New Mayor plays Hamlet

(Twentieth in a series)

While the uncertainty of the convention center project did not affect the die-hard incumbent Republican Charlie Smthgall’s campaign for Mayor of Lancaster in 2005, it did influence his Democrat opponent, Rick Gray.

Gray was a local defense and ACLU attorney with a reputation for representing the disreputable. The burly, goateed, bow-tied Gray seems to have endured a political Hamlet-esqe struggle on the public stage.

The project proposed by Penn Square Partners holds a promise of good for the county, the city and the school district,” candidate Gray stated on March 22, 2005.

In September, 2005, two months before the election, Robert Field met with Gray at Gray’s invitation in response to a letter Field had sent him. According to Field, Gray indicated concern about the feasibility of the project. Field advised not opposing it, but putting some space between Gray and the project so that project opponents would be more likely to vote for Gray and Gray would be more at liberty to research and decide when he took office.

This conversation between Gray and Field was reflected shortly after in a Lancaster New Era article, October 13, 2005:

If elected mayor, Rick Gray would immediately meet with his top advisers to evaluate the viability of the downtown hotel and convention center….Keeping the county commissioners’ concerns in mind,’ he told the Lancaster Rotary Club Wednesday, if he and his advisers decide it is not what the city needs, Gray said he’d ‘pull the plug’; on the $134 million project. . . .”

On October 31st, Pat Brogan, who had come from State Rep. Mike Sturla’s office to be director of “Campaign Issues & Communications” in Gray’s campaign, wrote to Field:

If elected, Rick Gray will convene a group of objective individuals to discuss how this project can be moved forward in an expedited manner. If this group determines that the project cannot proceed on a timely basis, Mr. Gray [will] work with the group to develop an alternate plan.”

Then on December 09, 2005, after his election and only weeks before being sworn in, and after reading a memo from the firm that performed a market study of the project disavowing the current enlarged project, Gray said again: “We’re taking a good look at the project right now with the idea of whether we can move it ahead or not.”

Twenty-five days later, on January 4, 2006, one day after taking his oath of office, Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray strode into the Farm & Home Center, a large meeting venue just outside of Lancaster city. He was about to make his position on the convention center issue perfectly clear.

A public meeting was taking place. The meeting was called by the three new county LCCCA appointees – Douglas, Hall, and Craver — to hear from the public on the project. None of the city appointees were present, nor was Executive Director, Dave Hixson, or solicitor, John Espenshade. The room was filled with more than two hundred citizens.

Most in the room were opponents of the project.

The audience quieted as the new Mayor approached the microphone. Then, in sharp, combative, almost hostile tones, Gray voiced strong support for the project and his frustration at project opponents for trying to stop it.

Where are your alternatives?” Gray snarled. “If we don’t use this money it’s going somewhere else. If we don’t use it, it’s gone.”

The crowd was stunned. A few clapped. Some booed. Most were quiet. Then Gray turned and strolled out of the room.

But the time was not far when the new Mayor would appear to modify his position.

At this point, late 2005, early 2006, Robert Field had zeroed in on the issue of the absence of a true feasibility study ever performed on the convention center-hotel project.

In separate letters, Field wrote to out-going mayor Charlie Smithgall, Mayor-elect Gray, LCCCA Chairman Ted Darcus, Rep. Mike Sturla, Sen. Armstrong, the president of the school board, president of city council urging each to support a full feasibility study be conducted on the project.

Even Carrie Steinman Nunan, an heir to the Steinman empire, received a letter from Field urging a full feasibility study. Despite the cordial, first name relationship between Ms. Nunan and Field, there was no response.

In a December 29, 2005 letter to New Era editor, Ernie Schreiber, Field wrote: “Something very positive you could immediately do is to write an editorial calling for the County, City, and Authority to jointly commission a genuine feasibility study….”

Field went before the County Commissioners, as well as the LCCCA board.

It is sorry commentary on the local monopoly print media that a private citizen should have to … expose the false characterizations of pivotal studies pertaining to the Convention Center and Hotel project,” he said to both boards in prepared remarks.

The issue of having an actual feasibility study done on the project got an unexpected boost on January 11, 2006. Exactly one week after he publicly denounced opponents of the project and spoke in favor of it, newly elected Lancaster City Mayor Rick Gray ‘crashed’ the County Commissioners weekly public meeting, and played the role of Hamlet again.

Standing in the back of the room, still wearing his overcoat, Gray told the Commissioners that if they wanted a feasibility study done, they should have Pricewaterhouse update its earlier studies, and the Commissioners should pay for the cost of it.

The Commissioners thanked the mayor for his time, and said they would consider it. Gray then turned and left the meeting without ever sitting down.

Within 90 minutes of Gray’s offer, Field was briefed in his office by a meeting attendee on what the Mayor said. Field immediately spun around in his chair to his computer and wrote a joint letter to Shellenberger and Gray (copying all three Lancaster newspapers), saying he would subsidize the cost of the feasibility study in the amount of $50,000.

I applaud Mayor Gray’s suggestion that the Commissioners order and pay for a feasibility study and his commitment that, if the project is not feasible, to end his support for the $137 million downtown revitalization initiative. ….

Should funding be an obstacle, I am prepared to contribute $50,000 toward the cost of a comprehensive feasibility study of the convention center and hotel, …”

Mayor Gray seemed to back away from his position almost immediately. When Commissioner Shellenberger announced on January 14 that another firm should perform the study because of a statement made by one of the Pricewaterhouse consultants distancing the firm from its earlier studies, Gray blasted Shellenberger calling the move “wasteful” and “unnecessary.”

The County Commissioners capitulated to Mayor Gray’s insistence that Pricewaterhouse conduct the study. At its January 18, 2006 public meeting, the Commissioners voted to authorize special counsel, Howard Kelin, to contact Pricewaterhouse about conducting a full feasibility study for the now $137 million project. One week later, Kelin wrote a letter to the firm about re-engaging it for the new study.

But Gray still objected. In addition to Pricewaterhouse doing the study, and imposing a hard 60-day deadline from January, 11, 2006, in a letter to Shellenberger dated January 20, Gray insisted Pricewaterhouse “evaluate the changed project on the same basis as the earlier project was evaluated.” The last caveat would ensure that a market, not a feasibility, study would again be performed.

The debate on whether Pricewaterhouse should perform a full feasibility study on the hotel and convention project was ended when the firm declined to participate in the study on January 28. There was no public explanation given for turning down the work.

On February 9, 2006 – four full weeks after Mayor Gray’s proposal and Field’s $50,000 subsidy offer – the Lancaster County Commissioners still had not commissioned a full feasibility study.

Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson were receiving other pressures regarding who would conduct the study. The Uptown Economic Development Corporation (UEDC) is an organization comprised primarily of local black business and community leaders. In a letter to Shellenberger dated January 19, 2006, Rev. Roland Forbes, chairman of the UEDC, wrote:

Recent revelations surrounding the absence of an actual feasibility study have only added to our anxiety. We applaud the efforts of Mayor Gray and you are making to address this glaring due diligence omission. However, total reliance on Price Waterhouse Coopers to review its earlier reports will not instill the project with the public confidence it needs. What is required immediately is an independent peer assessment.”

Forbes continued to recommend that an Orlando, Florida-based firm, ZHA, perform the feasibility study because, he wrote, “ZHA … has no vested interest in this deal.”

At the Commissioners’ weekly meeting on February 9, at which several members of the city’s Uptown Economic Development Corporation (UEDC) spoke in favor of a full feasibility study, the Commissioners voted to send out Requests for Proposals for a full feasibility study.

Some of us conclude that there has been a rush to judgment,” said UEDC member, Rev. Earl Harris, to the Commissioners, invoking the Johnny Cochran phrase, and perhaps sending a coded message with respect to selecting a firm.

What happened next was a strenuous debate among Shellenberger, Henderson, and Robert Field. The Commissioners individually spoke separately with Field regarding which firm to select to perform the study.

The Commissioners were, in mid-February 2006, significantly politically damaged by extensive Conestoga View and now grand jury coverage in Lancaster newspapers. They were now torn between the UEDC recommendation of ZHA, and Robert Field’s opinion that the international hospitality consultancy of Pannell, Kerr, Forster (PKF) should be selected.

It was vital that a top firm conduct the study,” said Field. “It had to be a firm whose credentials and reputation could not be questioned. PKF was one of the few who could meet the highest standard.”

The Commissioners were eventually persuaded to choose PKF. On February 16, 2006, Commissioners Shellenberger and Henderson voted to hire PKF to perform the feasibility study (Shaub dissented). The cost: $115,000.

To fit the outlay into the Commissioners discretionary budget, Field raised his pledge to $65,000. “This is something that needs to be done, and which will ultimately bring this community together,” he told the Intelligencer Journal.

In choosing PKF, the county was selecting one of the industry’s most respected firms in hospitality consulting, with a track record with some of the largest hotels and convention centers in the United States and the world.

PKF consultants sought the cooperation of the principals – the LCCCA, RACL, Penn Square Partners. But this cooperation was not forthcoming. In fact, efforts were underway by these entities to discredit the study before it even began its work.

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Chapter Twenty-One: ‘Free Money’: The LCCCA pays its Consultants

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