Monday, January 28, 2008

Gil Smart as Hamlet re Convention Center

On page 39 of "Molly S. Henderson v. Lancaster Newspapers, Inc., et al.," a blog posting by Sunday News associate editor Gil Smart from Aug. 2, 2007 is referenced. Smart's comments in response to 'Artie See' appear below:

"In the comments here, Artie See - whose writing I enjoy - notes that while we agree on many issues, he believed that 'we disagree on the *single* largest expenditure of taxpayer dollars in Lancaster County history…'"

"Well, maybe. I wrote about the convention center all of once in my column, way back in 1999, when we were still talking about a 61,000-square-foot facility (which, these days, seems almost quaint). I expressed some doubts that the promises being made then could be kept. Now that the project's been supersized, I'm virtually certain that the promises - the projections - won't be met.

"And I agree that there has been much wrong with the way this project has progressed. That there was no itemization of the billing from Stevens & Lee was, and is, ridiculous. That project proponents decided to simply ignore the Brookings Institution and others who suggest that the convention market is soft - and that the assumptions underlying this project may be invalid - is reckless.

"But while I may dislike various aspects of the project, the jury's still out on others - and perhaps on the project as a whole. I'm on the fence, in other words. And when am I, of all people, ever on the fence about anything?

"At the same time, I have some definitive ideas on how we got here in the first place.

"Lancaster Newspapers and Fulton Bank got involved in this project essentially for two reasons. The first was that both have multi-million dollar investments in the center city, and wanted to protect those investments. A falling-down structure just a few doors up from your corporate headquarters, on arguably the most important corner of the downtown crossroads, simply ain't good for business.

"Beyond this, though, I will argue that a genuine altruistic impulse was involved in their decision to get involved in the project. I can tell you, working here, that this is an old-style paternalistic company, and that's a very good thing for the people who work here. The company feels a sense of responsibility to its people, and to the community. And it was in part because of that sense of responsibility that LNP took on this project. Many of us who work for these newspapers wish it had been otherwise, for as my boss, Marvin Adams, has written on several occasions, *we have not covered this issue as we would have had someone else been running the show. We have absolutely pulled punches*. I can't tell you how many stories I've seen of this community or that community which has similar, successful convention centers. But where are the stories on communities where convention centers have failed?

"I can tell you of one, I've been there personally: Niagara Falls, N.Y. We stayed in a Holiday Inn directly across the street from the convention center; it was nice, but we were literally half a block from the 'hood. Boarded up buildings, liquor stores, you know the drill. Right next door to the hotel was this tree-lined courtyard, obviously meant to be an outdoor mall. Every single one of the shops was closed, out of business. Down closer to the falls itself was another outdoor mall, about a third occupied, including the smallest, saddest-looking Hard Rock Cafe I've ever seen.

"As I wrote shortly afterward, if this is the honeymoon capital of America, no wonder half of all marriages end in divorce.

"But on the other, Canadian side of the falls, the town is thriving. They've got a casino. And that has helped turn it into a tourist Mecca; the place was bustling where the American side was empty. I counted seven of those huge construction cranes - the likes of which now towers over the old Watt & Shand building - on the Canadian side. That is an undeniable sign of progress, of success.

"That is why I would wholeheartedly support the idea of putting a slots parlor into any Lancaster convention center/hotel. That is a persistent rumor that won't go away, probably a whole bunch of nothing. But if it were something - it would go a very long way toward making the whole venture here a success, putting it on more secure fiscal footing.

"I wonder, though, if those who have opposed the convention center on the basis of fiscal doubt would then support it - or whether they'd cast their lot with the anti-gambling moralists of the world.

"Could the hotel/convention center be successful without this? Perhaps - though it depends on how you define "success." I've had several local public officials assure me that there is all sorts of ancillary development waiting in the wings to make sure that this is actually going to happen, and that if it does this restaurateur or that retailer will certainly pull the trigger. And then we'll have all sorts of concomitant, *taxable* growth in or near center city. And then, even if the center/hotel itself doesn't meet projections, it still will have realized the goal of revitalizing Lancaster, and the financial impact of failing to meet projections could then be mitigated.

"Maybe. I've no idea how much of this waiting-in-the-wings development is real, concrete, committed, how much of it is theoretical. I do know that the job of luring retailers, restaurants and similar uses to the center of town is now in the hands of the James Street Improvement District and its director, Lisa Riggs, whom I've worked with on numerous occasions and about whom I can say, she knows what she's doing and she's good at it. It is not as if the city, at this point, is just permitting this thing to be built, sitting back and hoping they will come; the JSID in particular is out there beating the bushes. That is a hopeful development, and one wishes it might have materialized four or five years ago, rather than at this late date.

"And so this, then, is what I think about the convention center. A decidedly mixed bag. And I might have written about this at some point had it not been for the fact that I have, on occasion, been called upon to cover this. Now our staff writer Judy Strausbaugh, who has covered the convention center issue, is leaving to take a position down south, and I may have to begin covering this issue again. Personally, I'd rather spend the next year back in court. But as a general rule, I have tried to avoid opining about things that I have actually had to cover. And that's true of this issue in particular.

"Those who have suspected this are right: Anti-convention center opinion hasn't exactly been encouraged around here. Things might have been a little more, shall we say, fair and balanced had one of the newspapers, anyway, opposed it - or pushed harder for accountability. Even if all three newspapers supported it after long, thoughtful consideration, it just looks bad.

"A while back I wrote in the print edition of the parallels between this project, on the local level, and the Iraq war on the national level. Parallels in how the "product" was sold; you might consider Judith Miller and "The Watt & Shand Building will remain dark forever" (project opponents know exactly what I'm talking about) in the same vein. In both cases, the assertion that we had no choice but the current course of action was and is patently false.

"I have been a critic of how the national media treated the run-up to war, but locally I am *of* the establishment - a fact driven home to me when the establishment attorney kicked butt - as the establishment attorney would - and saved *my* butt in court last week (of course, as a buddy noted, had I not been of the establishment I wouldn't have written the story, nor found myself in court as a result, in the first place). I'm not going to come out shiny happy in favor of the convention center, because I'm not shiny happy in favor of it. But neither am I convinced that it is guaranteed to fail in the broad scope of its aims; not *merely* to meet its own fiscal projections, but beyond that.

"And even if it does - well, this isn't the war in Iraq. No one dies. At worst, taxes go up, perhaps way up; but if that were to happen, it in fact becomes - or could become, if the local "insurgents" managed it correctly - the death knell for the establishment as it is now constituted in Lancaster County. People here are going to remember, as well they should, whose idea this was, who pushed and pushed for it, the promises made. And there again is the parallel with Iraq, in that if it does fail, its proponents will be saddled with that failure, it will be hung around their necks like a yoke. I don't know that the establishment grasps this; I don't know that project opponents fully grasp it, either. Success *or* failure, the convention center marks a turning point, *the* turning point; and if it is to mark the end of an era, the question down here, as it is *up there* with the Iraq war, is the same:

"What comes next?"