CC Series Revised Chapter 11: Getting Started

By Christiaan Hart-Nibbrig

After the Lancaster County Commissioners passed Ordinance 73 on October 29th, 2003 – the $40 million county bond  guaranty for the convention center   –   public attention turned to the  county commissioners’ election just six days away.

Lancaster County Commissioner Chairman, Paul Thibault, who played the key role in both the hotel room and excise tax ordinances of 1999 (Ordinances 45 and 46), as well as Ordinance 73, would be leaving the board, along with Democrat, Ron Ford.

Thibault had been one of the convention center project’s key officials from its very beginning.  Ford, too, had voted for the taxes and to guarantee the bond.  There were questions whether the new board would be as accommodating to the project.

On Tuesday, November 4th, Dick Shellenberger, Pete Shaub, and Molly Henderson were elected to the board of Lancaster County Commissioners.

The final vote totals:

Shellenberger: 41,672

Shaub: 37,014

Henderson: 21,688

Saylor: 19,648

Clymer: 17,806

Shellenberger was gracious in victory, saying he was “humbled” by it, and seemed to defer to Shaub right away.

“I was the top vote-getter, but that’s only because I wasn’t in the spotlight,” Shellenberger said on election night. “I have a clean slate because I’m not an incumbent. If I were in office, I would have had some people who disagreed with me so I think not being the top vote-getter is normal with incumbency.”

Jim Clymer’s fourth-place finish didn’t reflect his impact on the race.  Clymer pushed the convention center issue to the top of the campaign debate.  It would stay atop the next commissioners’ agenda.

Immediately after being sworn into office, in January, 2004, the new commissioners’ board chose Pete Shaub as Chairman.

The new board of Lancaster County Commissioners faced an overhauled convention center authority board in 2004.

Jim Pickard, the LCCCA’s autocratic chairman, resigned from the authority in late summer 2003.  At the time of his resignation, Pickard had already stepped down as acting executive director of the Authority the previous year.

In July, 2003, on Pickard’s recommendation, David M. Hixson was hired by the LCCCA board as its Executive Director.

Hixson was actually the third executive director of the authority.  The first was Pickard, who worked without pay.  After Pickard stepped down as executive director in the spring of 2002, 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. The circumstances of Carper’s departure were sealed in the confidential termination agreement between Carper and the LCCCA.

A year later, Hixson was hired to oversee the Authority’s day-to-day activities and manage all phases of the project – contracts, construction, personnel, bill paying.

The round-faced, bespectacled, Hixson wasn’t a particularly articulate or dynamic presence on the board. Hixson had no experience in either the hospitality or convention center industries. The 37 year-old Hixson’s professional experience was as a political press spokesman. He worked as a deputy press secretary for former  Lieutenant Governnor Mark Schweiker. After September 11, 2001, Hixson worked for former Governor Tom Ridge, Homeland Security Director, coordinating Pennsylvania’s new public-safety initiative after the terror strikes.

According to an Intelligencer Journal profile, at the time he was hired Hixson was “principal adviser for legislative and regulatory policy at Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry — where he oversaw five bureaus and a budget of more than $25 million.”

At LCCCA board meetings, Hixson didn’t appear to grasp some of the more complicated details of the project, seeming rather lost at times during meetings.  At those moments, he would turn for assistance to the board’s solicitor, Stevens & Lee attorney, John Espenshade

One month after Hixson was hired, Pickard resigned from the board entirely

Pickard, a county appointee, was replaced in October, 2003, by John Fry, the president of the private Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.  Fry was a staunch supporter of the project.

“It is a coup to have someone of John Fry’s stature on the [LCCCA] board,” gushed then-Commissioner Chairman Paul Thibault after Fry’s appointment.

The ‘swing’ seat on the seven-person LCCCA board now shifted from the county to the city in late 2003.  With the fourth vote, Mayor Charlie Smithgall appointed (and the city county approved) former city council president, C. Ted Darcus to the authority board.

At the end of 2003, the LCCCA board of directors was comprised of four city appointees: Darcus; Willie Borden, an original board member, reappointed in 2003; and Lancaster city businessmen, Frank Taylor and David Schwanger.

The county’s representatives on the LCCCA board at this time were:  W. Garth Sprecher, an original board member; Judy Ware, reappointed in 2003; and Fry, appointed in October.

On January 12, 2004, the 63 year-old Darcus was voted by his fellow board members chairman of the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority board.

Darcus seemed to take his meeting management style from his predecessor, Jim Pickard.  As with Pickard, under Darcus, questions from the public – during public meetings – went unanswered.

Ted Darcus could be a rude and belligerent chairman. He had a habit of intentionally looking down 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.

No LCCCA committee met on a regular basis with Darcus as chairman.

With the county-backed bond sold in December, 2003, the LCCCA now had an additional $40 million in the bank to build the convention center.  However, under the terms of the bond agreement, the authority could not proceed with construction until a complete financing plan was in place for the entire project.  And the private financing, according to Hixson, was not in place

Something strange happened next.  The sponsors turned on one another.

First, on February 10, 2004, Commissioner Chairman Shaub said at a commissioners’ meeting, “”We want the authority to step up to the plate and provide much needed leadership for this project.”

“We are going to be asking for some deliverables: a schedule, a defined budget, a report on the scope of project,” continued Shaub. “In our opinion, this project needs leadership and accountability.  It is time to provide definition about what we can expect.”

Then, in late February, Hixson and the LCCCA blamed Penn Square Partners for dragging their feet on the project.  The LCCCA complained that the Partners had not completed architectural designs for the project.

“We’ve come to the point that simply we’re ready to move forward and the private sector isn’t,” Hixson was quoted in the New Era. “We want to be supportive. We want this thing to work. Don’t get me wrong.  It’s just at the point that we have to make some tough decisions here, not only in the interest of the project but most importantly in the interests of the community.  We’ve got 62 million bucks here and we’re unable [to proceed.]. We’re at a stalemate. We’ve got to find a way to move this project forward.”

The sticking point, according to Penn Square Partners president and spokesman, Nevin D. Cooley, was a deal involving a parking garage.  Cooley said the Partners would not authorize its architects, Atlanta-based Cooper-Carry, to move forward on the designs until there was a signed agreement between the LCCCA and the Lancaster Parking Authority.

The deal being negotiated was that the Parking Authority would lease its parking garage on East King Street, adjacent to the proposed convention center, in exchange for the LCCCA building the Parking Authority a new 300-space parking garage.

The agreement was said by Hixson to being close to finalized, but ‘close’ was not good enough for Cooley, who said the Partners wouldn’t authorize or pay for the architectural designs until signatures were on the dotted line.

“Part of the policy was the execution of the King Street Garage to be fully resolved,” Cooley said. “This is nothing new. This is what we’ve said all along.”

Even Mayor Charlie Smithgall, perhaps the project’s most fervent supporter, seemed discouraged, saying, “both sides need a kick in the pants.”

Lancaster County Commissioner Chairman Pete Shaub was making a habit out of “kicking people in the pants.” The mercurial commissioner, who openly feuded with former Commissioner Paul Thibault, was already roiling the waters in the first months of his new term. I’d like to know which side of your mouth you are speaking out of today,” Shaub said to Commissioner Molly Henderson at one commissioners’ public meeting early in the term.

One former county employee who worked in the Commissioners’ office remembered Shaub’s frequent screaming fits, once banging his head on a table during a meeting when advised the meeting might be in violation of the Sunshine Law.

Shaub’s wrath was now turned to the convention center project, which he felt was delayed too long.  Shaub set timetables with the Authority and private partners to get things done. Shaub, the former construction boss, took it upon himself to move the project along.

At a June 5th county commissioners’ meeting, after summoning Cooley and Hixson, a clearly perturbed Shaub publicly called out the private partners

“Nevin,” a clearly exasperated Shaub said to the Penn Square president, “I ask you, are we going to draw drawings?

Cooley responded, “When we have a signed agreement on the King Street garage.”

Shaub sniffed, “That is just an excuse. Folks, we have a very short time and very short lives. It’s time for Penn Square Partners to fulfill their end of the bargain so we can have those schematic drawings done by Sept. 7. We are behind as it is.

Things got even stranger.

Hixson announced the LCCCA was exploring buying the Brunswick Hotel, which now flew a Ramada Inn flag.

At its June, 2004, board meeting, the LCCCA voted to purchase the Brunswick/Ramada for $3.25 million.

“We’re going to find a hotel developer,” Hixson said. “The key not only for us, but for the city and the community as a whole, is that we will control the asset. We will be able to say, ‘Here’s what we’ll expect down there.’ That’s a huge advantage. We don’t want this to be a we’re-abandoning-the-project mentality. What we’re doing is exploring an option in case we get down the road and realize we can’t bring Penn Square the project. Hopefully, we do.”

The LCCCA’s pursuit of the Brunswick was criticized by Commissioner Henderson, who told the convention center authority to “stop your ill-advised Ramada-Brunswick hotel adventure before you waste even more taxpayer dollars.”

One LCCCA board member appeared to give away the bluff.

“It is not an option for us to operate a hotel,” John Fry said after the LCCCA announcement. “That is not what we do.”

The LCCCA had thirty days after making its offer to decide if it wanted to go ahead with the Brunswick acquisition.  If the authority decided to back out within that time period, it would cost them $10,000

If Hixson was bluffing, it seemed to work.  On July 15, 2004, Penn Square Partners announced that the architectural designs would be delivered to the Partners and Authority by October 1st, 2004

On July 20th, the LCCCA dropped its deal to buy the Brunswick Hotel.

“That deal is dead,” said LCCCA executive director Hixson.

“We didn’t want to send a message to the community that we were not focused on Penn Square,” said board chairman Darcus.

On August 11th, the LCCCA signed an agreement with the Lancaster Parking Authority to purchase two properties on East King Street for $1.7 million.  Those properties would be used to build a new parking garage for the Parking Authority.

The existing King Street Garage would be leased by the LCCCA for use by the convention center and hotel.

With the parking issue resolved, the temporarily estranged sponsors of the project moved forward.

On September 11th, Cooper-Carry architects were in the Southern Market Center with three-dimensional models of it designs.

Lead architect, Bob Neal, described the models as they were laid out on tabletops in the meeting hall.

“When you walk through the building, you are going to know you are in Lancaster” said Neal.

Senator Gib Armstrong, another early champion of the project, was on hand to look at the models of the center.

“Lancaster is turning around. This is finally going to happen,” said state Sen. Gibson E. Armstrong.

The senator was correct.  It did appear that the project was going to happen.  But who would pay for it was still very much an open question.