Chaos in City Hall
Three hot-button projects caused enough chaos for folks running City Hall this year with fallout expected to linger into the year ahead.
A couple of big money questions remain unsettled after the city’s loss of a professional hockey team, a decision to reinvest in Memorial Pool and close East End Pool after next year’s season and a sudden lack of federal funding for the replacement of the Midtown parking garage.
Will the city be left holding the bag after the Williamsport Outlaws hockey team and management skipped town without meeting its financial obligations at the start of 2013?
Will the community raise the $50,000 necessary to complete the renovation of Memorial Pool after the next swim season?
Will the $9 million Trade and Transit Centre II find the state and federal grant funding it needs to rise from the site of the Mid-Town parking deck that was razed this year?
Outlaws stick it to the city
Officials at City Hall can barely mention ice hockey without breathing deeply. And nobody knew anything was amiss at the start of the year.
Certainly not at the Federal Hockey League’s All Star Game banquet in early January, when team owner Kristen Rooney gave no clue of financial irregularities or a team on the move before the month was over.
In fact, then answering a reporter’s question, Rooney said she hoped for the renovation of the multi-purpose arena outside the YMCA behind Elmira Street to happen and for her team to be able to play on ice indoors.
As she was expressing her hope for the team and the region, City Council’s Finance Committee began questioning whether the team and its management had met its financial obligations.
The committee asked Controller Margaret “Peg” Woodring and Joseph Pawlak, city fiscal and budget officer, to prepare a report showing the expenses from the team’s use of Bowman Field between October and January.
The report indicated the city had spent $75,000 on its hockey rink at the ballpark, of which about $32,537 was previously planned for upgrades to the field’s electrical system and other improvements.
Facing increasing pressure, Mayor Gabriel J. Campana then asked Norman Lubin, city solicitor, to prepare a lawsuit in an attempt to recover the unpaid bills.
The lawsuit named the defendants as Rooney, the Outlaws and the Syracuse Junior Hockey Club, a nonprofit organization that operated the ice skating rink, according to Lubin.
The padlocks securing the team equipment also were changed, so Don Kirnan, the league’s commissioner, nor anyone affiliated with the team could enter.
At a winter meeting of the Bowman Field Commission, Lou Hunsinger Jr., commission chairman, began to get nervous.
“I’m concerned they’re not going to get the rink removed and the field repaired to standards acceptable by the Williamsport Crosscutters,” he said.
The thaw necessary to melt the ice did not occur until mid-April, and a hard frost lingered well past the start of spring. By then, the rink began to be dismantled by a company that had also sued the Outlaws.
After the rink was dismantled and the wood frame was removed, the dead turf and rough surface was exposed and the landscaping required extensive work, according to Bill Wright, city Streets and Parks Department general manager.
All the while, City Council President Bill Hall didn’t seem too fazed.
He had asked for the team and management to provide the city with $20,000 to be put in escrow to make necessary field repairs once the rink was removed.
But as the high school Backyard Brawl tournament approached in mid-May, Campana and the Williamsport Area School District’s athletic director decided the field wasn’t up to the standards necessary to play the tournament.
Instead, the tournament was relocated to Robert Logue Field, a suitable, but less impressive facility for the players, many of whom were in their final year of high school.
“This is blowback from the hockey fiasco,” Hunsinger, a baseball fan, said.
In retrospect, Campana acknowledged the infield could have been used, but he didn’t want the players to be on an inferior surface. But the mayor admitted losing sleep over the hockey debacle, especially after all of the good times.
For the most part, Campana said, those who skated on the ice rink or attended the hockey games had a good time, he said.
“It was a one-year experiment,” he said. “My intentions for quality of life activities have always been sincere.”
As for the lawsuit, Lubin said it is scheduled for trial in county court this spring.
Pool has another year
With price tags at about $1 million to repair and meet the Americans with Disabilities requirements, council and administration thought long and hard about whether the city should be in the swimming pool business.
“Should the city be in the aquatic business or not?” asked City Councilman Randall J. Allison, a member of the Finance Committee.
Over the summer, Campana said one city pool would be funded by using part of a $20 million bond taken out for various projects and $500,000 in state grants.
By Oct. 3, following a core testing of the concrete base at Memorial and East End pools, the decision was made to go with Memorial Pool, the less costly to repair.
The pool would be scheduled to open the late spring or early summer of 2015.
“We’ve heard from the neighbors and now let’s get some community involvement,” Hall said. “They need to be able to do their part, too.”
On Nov. 4, a meeting was held to share fundraising ideas and listen to individuals, organizations or groups.
Rodney Morgans, a member of the recreation commission, suggested Memorial Pool’s name be changed to something more catchy, such as “Splash City.”
Morgans sees great potential in improving the park.
He said the city or an organization or businesses need to join together in efforts to find enough money to create a miniature golf area or indoor arcade at the park.
The big blow to City Hall came when the city learned it wasn’t going to get a $12 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant, part of which was going to pay for construction costs associated with the $9 million Trade and Transit Centre II, according to Campana, who was adamant the project would be done, perhaps in stages, but would get started and completed under his watch.
The wheels were in motion through much of the spring and by mid-July, council approved a $362,000 contract to demolish the existing Mid-Town garage, built in the late 1960s, and $341,993 for site work to prepare the way for the new Trade and Transit II.
An ultra-modern facility was planned, with blue lights showing off the architecture at night and a wooden roof, symbolizing the lumber heritage of the city, would be a showpiece, according to William E. Nichols Jr., city finance director and general manager of River Valley Transit.
Inside, the garage would hold 245 spaces and include lower-level space for the offices of the Williamsport Parking Authority and retailers or restaurants. It also would have transit amenities, including a passenger waiting area, a bus drivers lounge and security offices.
In September, Nichols confirmed the city did not receive a large federal grant vital to this and other downtown projects.
“These projects are now on hold,” he said at the time, and work on the project stopped.
The stoppage turned out to be only temporary and was lifted within hours after a funding stream was ascertained.
“We put a hold on additional design work until the funding issue was clarified,” Nichols said.
“Council then voted to proceed with the project and approved the borrowing to keep it going.”
As the year ended, council was briefed that the city remains in the running for a $5 million state Redevelopment Capital Assistance grant.
Nichols’ outlook for 2014 is promising, but it depends on whether the state grant comes through.
“We have the money in hand to get it started. With availability of the state grant, we can solidify the necessary funding stream for the Trade and Transit Centre II project,” Nichols said.