Convention Center Series Chapter One: “Beginnings”

Chapter One:  Beginnings

By Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig

On a frigid day in late February, 1992, readers of the Lancaster New Era newspaper found on the front page a story that shocked and saddened them:

“Watt & Shand stores are being bought by Bon-Ton: Name will change at downtown and Park City location”

The New Era reported on that February 26th day that the Bon Ton department store chain would acquire the locally-owned Watt & Shand department stores on Penn Square, and at the nearby Park City mall.  Both stores, it was announced, would soon have their names changed to Bon-Ton.

The Watt & Shand building, in the center of downtown Lancaster on Penn Square, was no ordinary building.  Taking up the entire southeast corner of the historic square, the Watt & Shand, built in 1898, was designed by renowned nineteenth century Lancaster architect, C. Emlen Urban.

The elegant edifice, a four-story Beaux-Arts design, with ornate terra cotta and gleaming marble interiors, presided proudly over Penn Square for nearly 100 years.  The Watt & Shand was more than a retail store; it was a touchstone of memories for generations of Lancastrians.

Many locals considered the Watt & Shand the very heart of Lancaster.

News that the Shand family was divesting its downtown store was met with surprise and concern by Lancaster officials.

“It [the Bon Ton acquisition] raises a lot of questions about what commitment the Bon-Ton has to the downtown, because Watt & Shand has had a lot of commitment,” Mayor Janice Stork said in the New Era story.  “We’ll talk to them. We’ll make efforts to know them. I hope everything is going to work out for the city.  This is the end of a long institution in the city of Lancaster, and I have a great concern.”

County Commissioner, James Huber, was similarly distressed.

“Watt & Shand has been a very important part of this community,” Huber said to the paper.  “It has been committed to downtown Lancaster, to Park City, to the Lancaster area. It’s a family name that’s been well-known for many years. They definitely will be missed.  The Bon-Ton has a good name. The Watt & Shand store is very important to the health and vitality of the downtown, and I hope they continue to operate it.”

A soon-to-be former employee at the downtown Watt & Shand store commented: “We’re all shocked and surprised. Nobody really knows too much about what’s going to happen.”

The locals were justified in their concern. After the announcement of the sale, a Bon Ton spokesman provided no assurances the struggling downtown location would remain open.

“I can’t guarantee that [closing the downtown store] won’t be a possibility… [The business] has to be sound and profitable.  At this point, talking about the plans for the future is premature,” said Bon-Ton administrator Michael Gleim to the New Era.

It was commonly understood that Bon Ton acquired both Watt & Shand stores for the valuable Park City lease, not the money-losing Penn Square location.  Bon Ton had to take both; that was part of the deal.

For the time being, Bon Ton kept the lights on at the downtown store. . . for now.

The next year, 1993, in late July, a group of twelve of Lancaster County’s most prominent business leaders formed a non-profit organization.  They called their group the Lancaster Alliance.  The Alliance’s mission was to work in coordination to stimulate local business, particularly in the downtown area.

Here is how the Lancaster New Era introduced the Alliance in its front-page article 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.”

Three of the founding members of the Alliance, and officers on its initial board of directors, were:  S. Dale High, President and CEO of High Industries; Jack A. Buckwalter, President and Chairman of Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.; and Rufus A. Fulton, President of Fulton Bank.

In a few years, these three men – ‘Dale,’ ‘Jack,’ and ‘Rufus’ – would form a lucrative private partnership and build an expensive heavily taxpayer-subsidized hotel, but, at present, they were part of  Lancaster Alliance’s founding directors.

Other members of this small group of Lancaster business Brahmins included local titans, such as William Adams, Chairman of Armstrong Industries, and John Shirk, a senior partner at Barley Snyder, a powerhouse Lancaster law firm (and Lancaster Newspapers’ attorney).

These powerful men at the very top of the Lancaster establishment determined that a strategic and comprehensive plan was needed to revive the gasping downtown Lancaster economy.  And they were the men to do it.

On December 27, 1994, Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey signed an obscure law that would have an enormous impact on the history of Lancaster County.

The law was called the Pennsylvania Third-Class County Convention Center Authority Act.  The Convention Center Act permitted Pennsylvania county governments of “third-class” size (those with populations between 210,000-500,000) to create “Authorities, taxpayer-funded bodies empowered to build and administer convention centers.

The funding for the convention center authorities, according to the law, was to come from levying a county-wide hotel and motel room rental tax of up to five percent on every room rented in the county. Lancaster County, with a population of just under a half million – and scores of hotels and motels – was a ‘Third-Class’ county, and thus eligible to tap into the new tax revenue.

The Convention Center Act was sponsored in the Pennsylvania legislature by house member, Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, a Berks County Republican. The real authors – the ones who conceived and actually wrote 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 law corporation.

Working mostly in commercial law, Stevens & Lee was (and is) an influential lobbyist in Pennsylvania state government. In 1994, the firm represented a number of leading national and state corporate interests in Harrisburg.

Stevens & Lee was also deeply involved in local Pennsylvania government.  At the time the Convention Center Act was enacted, Stevens & Lee was solicitor-of-record for several Pennsylvania counties, including the relatively affluent ones of Berks, Luzerne, and Lancaster. All of these counties would soon build publicly funded convention centers.  When each built its convention center, all used the Third-Class County Convention Center Authority Act as the enabling legislation.

It was another winter’s day, this one January, 11th, 1995, when Lancaster’s citizens received more bad news about the Watt & Shand building.  The Lancaster New Era again broke the story:

“DOWNTOWN BON-TON SHUTS MARCH 5, SALES LOSSES CITED”

Bon Ton representatives said the company could not continue operating the Penn Square location with million dollar-a-year losses and plunging sales.

“We gave it our best shot.  We just couldn’t make it profitable,” said Bon Ton spokesman Michael Gleim to the New Era.

As for the 173 Bon Ton (former Watt & Shand) employees, most were now out of a job.

The beautiful building would stand, vacant and dark, looming over Penn Square for the next decade.

While the owners of the Bon Ton pondered how to dispose of their big, empty building, Lancaster’s civic leaders considered what to do about revitalizing their moribund downtown economy.

By 1995, downtown Lancaster 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 Lancaster Square – the 100-block of North Queen Street during the 1970s – and the Square’s subsequent failed re-development.

However well-intentioned, the botched “revitalization”of Lancaster Square no doubt left scars on the community and leadership alike.  For years, this area was known to locals as “our hole in the ground,” a concrete mash of abandoned buildings and empty spaces.

Lancaster Square, just a block from Penn Square, was an ever present, unsightly reminder of the failed revitalization efforts of Lancaster’s recent past.

During the next two years, starting in 1995, after the Bon announced the closing, a spirited civic debate took place in Lancaster about what do with the now-empty Watt & Shand building.  On one side of the debate was Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) and its supporters, who wanted to put a satellite HACC campus, and a couple thousand students, in downtown Lancaster.

On the other side were people like Charlie Smithgall, a colorful Lancaster pharmacist and Republican about to run for mayor, and Steve Murray, a Lancaster businessman, who wanted the building used for private development.

Also on the side of private ownership was Arthur E. ‘Art’ Morris, a former two-term Republican mayor.  Morris was an outspoken critic of the HACC proposal, who said one of his principal objections to the HACC plan was that it would take the building off the property tax rolls.

“I have a number of concerns, but a significant one is the tax base of this city,” Morris was quoted in the morning Intelligencer Journal.

Democrat Mayor Janice Stork, working with the Economic Development Company of Lancaster (EDC), negotiated with the state on behalf of HACC in attempting to acquire the building from Bon-Ton.  HACC was seeking a six million dollar grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The EDC, like the Lancaster Alliance, was a small non-profit group of powerful downtown Lancaster business leaders that included among its directors, Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.’s  chairman, Jack Buckwalter.

The Lancaster Alliance was one of several leading civic organizations, including the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, that was publicly supportive of the HACC plan.

The Lancaster County Commissioners race is typically decided in the Spring primary of an election year.

A series of unusual events made the 1995 primary a different kind election.

Lancaster County has an overwhelmingly Republican majority among registered voters. Thus, whichever two GOP candidates come out of the Spring primary are invariably elected to the three-person board of county commissioners in the November general election.

The governing Lancaster County charter mandates that one political party can occupy, at most, two of the three seats on the commissioners’ board.  So, historically, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners has been made up of two Republicans, and one Democrat.

In 1995, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners was, anomalously, made up of three Republicans:  Brad Fischer; Terry Kauffman; and the four-term, James Huber.  The anomaly came about because Fischer changed parties after the 1991 election.  Previously, he had been a Democrat.

In late January, Brad Fischer announced he would not seek a third-term.

The next out-of-the-ordinary event leading up to the May primary happened when a leading GOP candidate for commissioner, Lancaster County Recorder of Deeds, Ronald Cohen, dropped out of the race.   It was revealed Cohen falsely claimed to have a college degree.  By the time Cohen withdrew, he had already secured the endorsements of a few key Lancaster area Republican committees.  Cohen was considered a strong challenger against Huber.

Now, running for the two spots on the November ballot, were three GOP candidates: incumbents James Huber and Terry Kauffman, and the County Treasurer, Paul Thibault.

Thibault, an urbane, silver-haired 47 year-old Ph.D, was not endorsed by the county’s Republican Committee, a group of active Lancaster County Republican faithful.  He was endorsed by the city’s Republican Committee, however.

Thibault targeted Huber in his campaign.  He attacked Huber, chairman of the commissioner board, for a recent and unpopular county property tax reassessment.  Thibault also went after the four-term Huber on the issue of term-limits.  Thibault promised to serve no more than two terms if elected.

And at the same time Newt Gingrich and his Republican cohorts were turning the United States Congress on its head with their “Contract with America,” Thibault mimicked the Gingrich with his own “Contract with Lancaster.” Thibault’s “Contract” was a four-point plan that included a get-tough-on-crime component, as well as term limits, farmland preservation, and tax relief.

On the eve of the May 16 primary, a Millersville University poll showed Kauffman and Huber, who often campaigned together, with a commanding lead over Thibault.

“Incumbents Terry L. Kauffman and James E. Huber hold a 2-1 lead over opponent Paul Thibault in the Republican County Commissioner primary election,” the Lancaster New Era reported on May 11th.

The Millersville pollsters could not have been more wrong.  After the votes were counted, Paul Thibault stunned pundits, pollsters, and his own party leadership with a resounding victory over the four-term incumbent, James Huber.

Thibault finished second behind Kauffman, who garnered 24,905 votes.  Thibault received 21,310 votes to Huber’s 17,128.   Turnout was an anemic 34 percent of registered voters.

The next board of Lancaster County Commissioners would, with virtually 100% certainty, include Paul Thibault.

On election day, November 7, 1995, according to script, Republicans Terry Kauffman and Paul Thibault, along with Democrat, Ron Ford, were elected Lancaster County Commissioners.

During the summer of 1996, as the HACC debate continued, the Lancaster Alliance announced the creation of a subsidiary organization called the Lancaster Campaign.

“’LANCASTER CAMPAIGN’ KICKS OFF TO HELP TAKE CITY TO HIGHER LEVEL,” read the front-page headline of the Lancaster New Era on July 24th.

On that day, in a major press conference at the cavernous Southern Market Center, William Adams, chairman of the Alliance, was joined by city and county officials from both political parties in announcing the launch of Lancaster Campaign.

Democrat Mayor Janice Stork and Republican city council president, C. Ted Darcus, along with county commissioners Terry Kauffman, and Ron Ford, his Democrat colleague, were also on hand to support the Lancaster Campaign kickoff.

According to the Alliance’s Adams, the Lancaster Campaign would rely on an enormous volunteer effort to improve the economy and quality-of-life in Lancaster.  In his remarks at the press conference, Adams said the group interviewed 115 Lancaster citizens, asking for their “vision” of Lancaster by the year 2000.

Adams announced that the Lancaster Campaign had organized 18 “specialized action groups” to work on various areas of civic improvement.  One group tasked with improving the city’s business climate was headed by Rob Ecklin, owner of the towering Greist Building on Penn Square, and James Schultz, a senior executive with one of Dale High’s companies, High Investments.

It was also announced at the press conference that the Alliance’s now 14-member businesses would contribute $200,000 for the next two years to pay for an executive director and an administrative assistant to run the day-to-day operations of the Lancaster Campaign.  Joseph Morales, a former director of a social program for low-income families, was hired as the first director of The Lancaster Campaign.

The next year, 1997, a mayoral election would take place in the city of Lancaster, and that year’s contest was to be an ‘open’ one.

Two-term Democrat Mayor Janice Stork decided against leveraging the advantages of incumbency, and announced in February she would not seek a third-term.  In the embattled Stork’s situation, her incumbent status might not have given her much of an edge, anyway.

In her announcement, held in a conference room at the Lancaster Newspaper, Inc., Stork, the city’s first-and-only female mayor, pointed to the personal pain she felt in laying off 17 Lancaster firemen and dozens of other city workers in 1996.

If Stork had chosen to run again, in addition to the city firings, she would also have to defend the city’s bulging budget deficit, never a popular position for a politician.  Finally, and fatally from a political perspective, Stork could not absorb attacks from the property tax increase she introduced a year earlier.

Stork’s widely publicized clashes with the Republican-majority city council, too, would have promised a particularly negative campaign against her GOP-backed opponent.

Stork would finish her term a lame duck.

In February, Stork’s party, the Democrats, picked Jon Lyons, a genial 52 year-old, Lancaster attorney, to carry the party’s banner for the mayoralty.  Lyons, a former Lancaster City Council member, cut the ponytail he’d sported for years when he announced his candidacy.

Lyons’ Republican opponent was a portly, garrulous 51 year-old pharmacist named Charlie Smithgall.  Although Smithgall, a lifelong Lancaster resident, had never held elected office, he was not a complete political novice, and soon showed he was a natural in the scrum of Lancaster municipal politics.

Smithgall, a longtime city Republican committeeman, immediately displayed the style that would mark his political career.

“The city’s wrong.  It’s just gone wrong,” Smithgall said to the New Era in early February, 1997, right before he officially announced his candidacy.  “Maybe I’m the one to do it.  I’m a businessman, not a politician.  I think different than a politician would think. I think like a businessman.

When Smithgall formally announced his candidacy the following week, he immediately distanced himself from the current mayor.

“Janice is a nice lady,” Smithgall said to the New Era. “But she must have the world’s worst advisers.”

Smithgall then introduced a ten-point plan he intended to implement if elected.  Among the points of his plan – which he, like current-County Commissioner, Paul Thibault, called a “Contract with Lancaster” – were: “reducing government regulation to make it easier for businesses to locate in the city; actively recruiting business to the city; requiring government employees to live in the city; cutting taxes below the rate of surrounding suburbs; eliminating half the city’s parking meters; and encouraging non-profit alternatives to government-funded programs.”

One issue on which Charlie Smithgall probably expected to campaign – the future of the Watt & Shand building – was taken off the agenda in March, 1997, when the Pennsylvania Department of Education rejected HACC’s $6 million dollar grant request to move into the building.

“The problem is that it’s a $6 million application for a building worth $1.5 million,” a spokesman for the Department of Education told the New Era.

With that, the HACC plan was effectively killed.

During that campaign summer of 1997, in July, the Lancaster Campaign commissioned a study to determine how best to revitalize the city of Lancaster. The Campaign hired LDR International, a well regarded urban planning firm based in Columbia, Maryland.  LDR’s lead consultant was an esteemed urban planner named Bert Winterbottom.

An excited July 1, 1997, front page Lancaster New Era article (“Design doctor hired to revive city”), announced the news to Lancaster:  “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 its research. In the course of their study, LDR would hold multiple public meetings, conduct polls and surveys, and the following year present its report with fanfare and publicity.

Prior to running for mayor, Charlie Smithgall was best known in the Lancaster community for his cannons. Smithgall had collected more than 40 artillery pieces made before 1865. Sixteen of his prized cannons were fired annually at the popular “Patriotic Concert” in Long’s Park over the 4th of July weekend.  As the cannons boomed, the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s “Overture of 1812.”

The colorful Smithgall, also a licensed gun dealer, was active in Civil War re-enactments and Revolutionary War re-enactments in the region.  It seemed Charlie was fond of war games in his spare time.  Now, in entering Lancaster politics, he found himself on the front lines of another type of battlefield.

Even Smithgall’s wife, Debbie, had a penchant for attracting positive press for her husband.  In late October, a couple of weeks before the election, Mrs. Smithgall spotted a suspicious man looking into a neighbor’s window.

Debbie called the cops, and made headlines in the Intelligencer Journal:

“CANDIDATE’S WIFE HELPS MAKE ARREST
Debbie Smithgall, an advocate of neighborhood crime watches, practiced what she preaches Monday when she helped city police collar a suspected burglar. Smithgall, the wife of Republican mayoral candidate Charlie Smithgall, called police after spotting a suspicious man peeking into neighbor’s windows about 10:30 a.m.”

Jon Lyons did not provide much resistance for Charlie Smithgall and his cannons.  Smithgall relentlessly tied the relatively laid-back Lyons to the failed Stork administration, to “the Stork/Democrat mess,” and the phrase seemed to stick with the voters.

On election night, November 4, 1997, Charlie Smithgall was elected mayor of Lancaster.  He won by an almost 20% margin.

On a victory march through the city after Lyons conceded, Smithgall climbed the stairs at City Hall:

“And Saturday parking will be free!,” exulted the triumphant Smithgall, repeating a campaign promise.

Smithgall would soon be part of a small group who would be bringing a convention center to Lancaster . . . and that, definitely, would not be free.

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Updated: January 14, 2013 — 11:11 am

1 Comment

  1. AWESOME!!!!!

    EDITOR: We thought the same. Chapter Two will be published later this week.

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