(The second chapter of a revised series)
By Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig
Between the time Charlie Smithgall was elected mayor in November, 1997, and the time he took office in January, 1998, the Bon Ton company announced its intentions to sell the Watt & Shand building to the highest bidder.
Mayor-elect Smithgall had been a staunch and vocal opponent of moving HACC into the Watt & Shand, and no one was more pleased than Charlie when the state rejected HACC’s funding request earlier in the year. Like former mayor, Art Morris, Smithgall’s chief complaint was that the college would pay no property taxes.
Now, the provincial Smithgall’s concern was that the building would fall into the wrong private hands, and that an out-of-towner would purchase the landmark in the center of his hometown. At least that’s what he said.
In one of his first official actions as mayor, on his first day in office, January 6, 1998, Charlie Smithgall appointed James O. Pickard as the city’s “Economic Development Director.”
Pickard’s sole charge, according to Smithgall, was finding a buyer for the Watt & Shand. Pickard, a former Pennsylvania Commerce Secretary, would take no salary for the job.
“This [finding a buyer for the Watt & Shand] is the single most important thing we can do in the next four years,” said Pickard of his mission after his appointment.
Exactly two days later, on January 8, Mayor Charlie Smithgall announced that the city itself would make an offer to Bon Ton to buy the Watt & Shand building. Right away, Smithgall showed he was a great quote:
“The city will have no money in this,” Smithgall told the New Era. “I’m pulling a rabbit out of the hat. I’m asking private investors to help us out. I want a use in that building as soon as possible. I don’t want it to sit there. One of my fears is that an investor would buy the building and let it sit empty for two or three years. That’s a possibility, given the price, the location. They could buy now and sell when the price is right.”
Smithgall indicated that the city intended to hold the building for a short period until it could be re-sold to a private, presumably Smithgall-approved, local concern. He didn’t quite explain how the city could have “no money” in the purchase of a building appraised at more than one million dollars
No matter, the hard-charging, inexperienced Mayor was pursuing the sale with haste. “A letter will be faxed to them [Bon Ton] today,” Smithgall said to New Era reporter, Ernie Schreiber. “They’ll get it by Fed-Ex tomorrow. We’re trying to probe each other. I’ve got what I want to pay. They got what they want. Now the fun starts.”
Smithgall said he didn’t believe finding local buyers would be too difficult. “I don’t think it will be real hard,” he said. “There are a lot of people who want to help the city.”
Charlie Smithgall didn’t have to wait long to find three people who wanted to “help the city.”
On January 23rd, the New Era once again scooped its morning rival, the Intelligencer Journal, and announced on its front-page:
“INVESTORS AGREE TO BUY BON-TON BUILDING“In what city officials hope will mark a rebirth of downtown Lancaster, a local corporate partnership has agreed to buy and expedite redevelopment of the historic Bon-Ton department store.
“Penn Square Partners, headed by the High Real Estate Group, announced this morning that it has signed papers to acquire the vacant, four-story building for $1.25 million.”
“We’re very excited,” said Nevin D. Cooley, group president. “This is an opportunity to effect a very exciting addition the downtown … The final plan will be developed with sensitivity to the overall impact it will have on the city and county as a whole…
“The partnership, which includes Fulton Financial Corp. and Lancaster Newspapers Inc., expects to see the elegant, Victorian-era building turned into a complex of stores, tourist attractions and upper-story business offices.”
If one put together a ‘dream team’ of businessmen to form an alliance in Lancaster County, Penn Square Partners would be that team.
The partnership – its legal name, Penn Square General Corporation — married Lancaster’s largest industrialist (Dale High,); the Chairman of the monopoly newspaper (Jack Buckwalter); and President & CEO of Lancaster’s richest bank (Rufus Fulton).
At the time the new Penn Square Partnership was formed, in January, 1998, S. Dale High had been head of the High companies since 1977.
Dale’s father, Sanford H. High, founded the family company, then called High Welding Co., in 1931 with Sanford’s brother, Benjamin. The company became High Steel, and then, expanding further, subsequently became High Industries, the name of the parent company of all of High’s subsidiaries.
‘Dale,’ as he was known, born in 1942, was the youngest of Sanford’s three sons. Eldest brother Calvin was ten years Dale’s senior, and Donald between them in age.
Dale was the only one of the three High boys to graduate from college; (Calvin left after one year; no records were found of Donald attending any college). Dale graduated from Elizabethtown College in 1963, with a degree in business administration.
Calvin High worked alongside his father in the executive branch of the business, and was president of the steel company for a few years in the early 1970s. Middle brother Donald High took a quieter, more modest career path, and operated a crane for employment.
When Dale came to work for the family business fresh out of college in 1963, High Steel had 60 employees and gross revenues of about $1 million per year.
In 1977, at age 35, Dale was put in charge of the company, and named President and CEO.
By 1997, annual revenues were approaching half a billion dollars, the corporation had dramatically diversified its services, and personnel had grown to nearly 3,000. Dale was was the driving force behind that growth.
From the inception of the company in 1931, until the time Dale, at age 35, took it over in 1977, High companies owned no hotels. From 1988 to 1998, with Dale leading the company, High’s new hotel division built or acquired eight hotels.
It is possible that a hotel is what Dale had in mind for Penn Square when he joined Buckwalter and Fulton in buying the Watt & Shand building in early 1998.
John H. “Jack” Buckwalter – like his father, Isaac Z. “Izzy” Buckwalter – was a lifer with Lancaster Newspapers. The newspaper monopoly – the morning Intelligencer Journal, afternoon Lancaster New Era, and Lancaster Sunday News – was owned for most of the century by the Steinman family of Lancaster.
Jack Buckwalter was a city boy, who stayed home and took a degree from Franklin & Marshall College after graduating from McCaskey High School in Lancaster.
Jack followed his father into the newspaper business and, according to a later puff piece written about him in one of his newspapers, Jack rode to and from work with dad Izzy for a period of seven years.
In December 1988, 52 year-old Jack M. Buckwalter was named President and CEO of Lancaster Newspapers, Inc. At the time of his big promotion, Buckwalter held the same position as his father before Izzy retired, executive vice president. Now, Jack was in charge of the whole thing – the three broadsheets; the popular farming tabloid; the Spanish paper, everything.
Rufus A. Fulton, Jr. (no relation to the bank’s namesake founder) had spent his professional life, about 30 years, with Fulton Bank before ascending to President and CEO in 1993. The large, red brick Fulton Bank building takes up the Northeast corner of Penn Square, directly across the street from the Watt & Shand.
Rufus Fulton, like Buckwalter, started at the lower rungs of the company ladder and worked his way up. In Fulton’s case, he began as an entry level trust officer trainee, and climbed to the top of the bank management.
Fulton, like Buckwalter, was an early supporter of the HACC plan before it was killed by the state’s denial of its funding request. Both Rufus and Jack were also close social friends, who often lunched together at the exclusive, members-only Hamilton Club in downtown Lancaster.
Now, the three partners – led by High – had to figure out something to do with the building they just bought.
“We’re looking at all the options,” said Dale High to the New Era on February 17, after the sale was finalized. “We see it as a mixed-use building.”