Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Deja vu "Blurred vision"

The Dec. 3 Intelligencer Journal editorial is aptly headed "Blurred vision." It refers to the inception of the misbegotten Lancaster Square Project, conceived despite ample evidence at the time of a lack of downtown market for the 220 room Hilton Hotel and for the Hess Department Store.

Due to low occupancy, the hotel entered foreclosure, lost its Hilton franchise and has struggled ever since. The department store closed its doors within two years. Prominent members of the local business community had predicted what occurred.

"Blurred vision" may also apply to the current development of the Convention Center and Marriott Hotel. Not only have experienced business leaders predicted dire outcomes, but a feasibility study by one of the leading consultants in the world predicted huge annual losses for convention center and hotel alike.

The root of the "blurred vision" in both cases is the the failure of local leaders to understand the strengths and limitations of the City. They continuously perceive Lancaster as though it were the economic capital of the region when, in fact, it is dwarfed by Philadelphia, Baltimore, Harrisburg, and even nearby Reading.

Downtown Lancaster is not going to attract office tenants from outside the region.

The Watt & Shand site is too small and streets too congested. There is no Interstate access. There are few, and sometimes no, scheduled commercial flights from the airport

Tourists choose to stay nearer the Amish. Most commercial travelers are making calls outside the city and thus have no reason to come downtown.

The decision making pertaining to Lancaster Square was made in an honorable context with input from the thirty to forty major businesses of the day and based on studies performed by national experts. Alas, none of this applies to the Convention Center Project, a monument to greed, power, bullying, waste and possibly corruption.

"Clear vision" requires seeing Lancaster City for what it is and building upon its strengths. Efforts in promoting the arts have proven successful. However, the very best opportunity is the expansion of the Pennsylvania Academy of Music (PAM) into a world class music campus, in part by absorbing the former Hilton and current Brunswick Hotel as dormitories, cafeteria, practice rooms, and student center.