by Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig
“Quite simply, the Convention Center Authority was the worst organization I have ever encountered, let alone been a part of. It is very clear that the authority had no regard for the source of its revenues, the taxpayer.”
– Laura Douglas, appointed by the Lancaster County Commissioners in September 2005, and served until 2008, of her service on the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority board of directors
If the building of the Lancaster convention center project is viewed as a civic civil war, then the conflict can be seen as pitting the ‘sponsors’ against the ‘opponents.’
In 2005, the sponsors of the project were the elite of the Lancaster political and business establishment. The county’s largest industrialist, Dale High; its monopoly press, Lancaster Newspapers; largest bank, Fulton, were the “private” sponsors, known collectively as Penn Square Partners.
They were joined by officials like then-Lancaster city mayor Charlie Smithgall, state Sen. Gib Armstrong, state Rep. Mike Sturla, former county commissioner Paul Thibault, and the majority of the members of the Lancaster City Council. Smithgall’s successor, Rick Gray, also became a sponsor of the project following his election in November, 2005.
Finally, establishment organizations like the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, Franklin & Marshall College, and various business groups, formed the leadership for the sponsors’ side.
The opponents were a much more loosely aligned group of individuals. The political leaders of this group would have been County Commissioners Dick Shellenberger and Molly Henderson. Chairman Shellenberger and Henderson, who expressed support for the project in 2003 but not for the $40 million county-backed guaranty, had become sharply critical of aspects of the project by 2005.
The rest of the opponents were an eclectic brigade of Lancaster citizens. The first opponents were the county’s hotel and motel owners, who spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars in losing battles fighting the room rental tax in state courts.
Ron Harper, Jr., April Koppenhaver, RB Campbell, Randy Carney, Robert Field, Victor Capecce, Tom Despard, and Luis Mendoza were some of the people who invested time, money, and, some, considerable expertise in an attempt to check what many viewed as a runaway project.
Until September of 2005, the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority (LCCCA) board of directors would have been firmly counted in the ‘sponsors’ column. At its inception in September, 1999, and again in 2003, both the county board of commissioners and the Lancaster city mayoralty were controlled by sponsors of the project. This meant that sponsors were able to name all seven members to the LCCCA board. And the decisions the board made consistently redounded to the benefit of the private project sponsors.
By the fall of 2005, however, the addition of county appointees Laura Douglas, Deb Hall, and Jack Craver to the LCCCA promised to make it a more confrontational board.
“We selected these people because they were going to ask questions that we were not getting answers to,” said Shellenberger. “We hoped the [LCCCA] board would answer their questions.”
The LCCCA board that Douglas, Hall, and Craver joined was led by chairman C. Ted Darcus.
If former county commissioner Paul Thibault (an academic raised in Canada) was an unlikely player in insular Lancaster politics, Ted Darcus was an even rarer find. Darcus, short, black, and Republican, who grew up in Fairmount, West Virginia, found himself, in late middle age, something of a political powerhouse in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
In September, 1999, in his final months on the Lancaster City Council, Darcus, as president, voted to approve the establishment of the LCCCA board. Four years later, in September, 2003, Darcus was named to the board he helped establish.
On January 12, 2004, the 63 year-old Darcus, a former high school basketball star, was voted by his fellow board members chairman of the Convention Center Authority board.
Darcus seemed to take meeting management tips from his predecessor on the board, Jim Pickard, who ran the LCCCA meetings with an authoritarian, imperious iron gavel. As with Pickard, under Darcus questions from the public – during public meetings – went unanswered.
Ted Darcus, the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Lancaster, could be a rude and belligerent chairman. He had a habit of intentionally looking down at his desk when a member of the public was speaking, often pretending to read or write while citizens tried to make their points. Questions from board members were openly discouraged.
Under Darcus, no LCCCA committee met on a regular basis.
Rodney Gleiberman, general manager of the Continental Inn and a plaintiff in lawsuits against the LCCCA, and who attended dozens of meetings chaired by Darcus, had this blunt assessment of the chairman:
“Ted Darcus was a hot-headed, dimwitted, single-minded presence on the Authority board. The man has very poor communication skills. While these might be tolerated qualities in a private company, they are totally inappropriate for running a ‘public’ entity. He was an embarrassment as chair of the LCCCA board of directors.”
Laura Douglas, the businesswoman appointed by the county commissioners in September,2005, and who served until 2008, said to NewsLanc of her time on the LCCCA board:
“Quite simply, the Convention Center Authority was the worst organization I have ever encountered, let alone been a part of. It is very clear that the authority had no regard for the source of its revenues, the taxpayer. … Mr. Darcus was a very strongly divisive force on the board. He was blinded by certain issues, and instead of considering them, would go ahead and move forward.”
The other three city appointees were notable for not being noticed.
Willie Borden Jr. was the only original member still on the LCCCA board. Borden, a journeyman electrician with power company PP&L, barely spoke at the meetings, and almost never voted against Pickard and the majority of the board. His was a dependable vote.
Dave Schwanger owned a successful heating oil company with his brother. In 1998, Schwanger was recruited by Sen. Gib Armstrong to run against Rep. Mike Sturla for Sturlas’ seat in the state legislature. (Schwanger was trounced on election day; Armstrong won easily). Schwanger was also personal friends with project sponsor, Lancaster Mayor Charlie Smithgall, who named him to the LCCCA board. Schwanger was even less noticeable on the dais than the practically mute Borden. He, too, voted with the other city members en bloc.
The fourth member of the city’s LCCCA appointees was Joseph Morales, a native of Brooklyn who came to Lancaster during his teenage years in 1978. Morales worked as an instructor and administrator for IU13, an education services organization that serves public and private schools in Lancaster and Lebanon counties. Morales was more vocal during public meetings than either Borden or Schwanger, occasionally commenting on an agreement, or making a statement, but, he like the other city appointees almost never broke ranks when it came time to vote.
(Since leaving the LCCCA board in 2007, Morales has been the well remunerated executive director of the controversial Lancaster Community Safety Coalition, a privately-owned organization that has hundreds of cameras throughout Lancaster. The LCSC is a subsidiary of the Lancaster Alliance, the organization founded by Dale High, Rufus Fulton, Jack Buckwalter, and nine others in 1993.)
So while the city appointees, with the exception of Ted Darcus were not demonstrative, and none had expertise in the hotel or convention industry, there was little question how the city’s appointees saw their roles on the board.
The schism between the city and county appointees on the LCCCA board was used by supporters of the project as an example of the county commissioners’ supposed anti-city bias on the project.
“I always had a problem with the idea that I was ‘anti-city,” Shellenberger told NewsLanc. “I was very familiar with the city, and I wanted to do what was best for the city. We [the commissioners] supported Clipper Stadium, invested in the Northwest Corridor, and other important city projects. Again, the convention center involved county taxpayers’ money, and we didn’t want the public’s money wasted or poorly spent.”
The LCCCA had two more people on the board that would be considered in the sponsors’ camp.
One was David M. Hixson, the board’s executive director. Hixson was the third Executive Director hired by the Authority. The first was Pickard, who was both chairman and acting executive director at the board’s inception in September, 1999. Pickard stepped down as executive director in the spring of 2002, and Michael Carper, a former banker and property manager with hotel executive experience, was hired shortly afterward to replace him.
Carper quit suddenly after just six months on the job. The circumstances of Carper’s departure were sealed in the confidential termination agreement between Carper and the Authority.
Hixson was hired in the summer of 2003 to oversee the authority’s day-to-day activities and manage all phases of the project – contracts, construction, personnel, bill paying – from the Authority’s position.
The round-faced, bespectacled, Hixson wasn’t a particularly articulate or dynamic speaker. Hixson had no experience in either the hospitality or convention center industries. Most of former positions were as a press spokesperson. He had a supervisory position with the department of labor in the Ridge administration before coming to the authority.
Hixson didn’t appear to grasp some of the more complicated details of the project, seeming rather lost at times during meetings. But whatever acumen Hixson lacked didn’t discourage Jim Pickard’s recommendation, and it was on that basis that Dave Hixson was hired for the $80,000 a-year (plus benefits) position. One month later after Hixson was hired, Pickard resigned from the board.
When either Ted Darcus or Dave Hixson had a question, they would look to the end of the dais for the answer. Seated there, as he had since the first LCCCA meeting in 1999, was John Espenshade, the board’s solicitor.
Espenshade and his law firm, Stevens & Lee, wore several hats in the development of the convention center and hotel project. Apart from representing the LCCCA, Espenshade represented the county of Lancaster for more than 10 years. Stevens & Lee was also the registered lobbyist for Penn Square Partners’ General Partner, High Industries. Stevens & Lee was also the firm that authored the 1994 Pennsylvania Third Class Counties Convention Center Act, allowing a room rental tax to be imposed to pay for the construction of a convention center. Stevens & Lee also received the majority of legal work commissioned by the LCCCA.
Although the LCCCA board was divided 4-3 in favor of the sponsors, with Hixson and Espenshade, it was more like a 6-3 division, with the sponsors controlling the executive director, chairman, and solicitor positions.
The city LCCCA board members’ and the executive director’s relative lack of experience in the convention center and hospitality industries contrasted with the county appointments. Douglas was the hands-on owner of a thriving international manufacturing business. She was used to reviewing complex legal and business agreements. Hall oversaw the chamber of commerce for one the county’s largest boroughs. Finally, and especially, there was the county’s newest appointment, Jack Craver, who worked in the hotel industry for decades, including several years as general manager of New York’s famed Plaza Hotel.
Whatever the lack of qualifications of Hixson and the city appointee board members (be it accidental or on purpose) , the sponsors’ side had the benefit of nearly $10 million of services from hotel sponsor / project manager the High Group and the law firm of Stevens and Lee.