Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Art Of The Steal, Lower Providence Style

This past Friday afternoon I was invited to accompany several current and former township officials to witness the ceremonial transfer of the 78 acres of land owned by philanthropist Gerry  Lenfest as it was officially exchanged for a small swatch (.87 acres) of land at 3rd and Chestnut in Philadelphia, slated to be the new home of the American Revolution Center (ARC). As chairman of our Zoning Hearing Board in 2008-2009, I presided over the many evenings of hearings on this project, examined over a hundred exhibits, and heard many hours of testimony for and against it, during two validity challenges to the Living History Overlay District. In the end, I came away convinced that the ordinance was valid, and that the project belonged to Valley Forge National Historical Park.

As many of you know, the 78 acres of land - formerly property of the St. Gabriel's Protectorate before being sold to Mr. Lenfest - was originally envisioned as the future home of the ARC. It seemed the most logical place - next to the very location where the Revolutionary troops endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge, and the very land where our struggle for freedom from tyranny in England is what most Americans consider symbolic of our determination and resolve to win.

I am genuinely glad that the ARC will finally be built - somewhere, as new generations of Americans desperately need to be reacquainted with the story of what drove our beginnings as a nation. Surveys show that the vast majority of Americans don't have a basic knowledge of historical facts about the American Revolution, the fundamentals about what drove us to seek independence, the sacrifices made to obtain it, and the creation of our founding documents and their application to current events.

Those of us who supported this project always said that, for us, it was truly about the project and our belief in its worthiness, wherever it would go. And, our fiduciary duty to do what was best for the majority of Lower Providence residents. We were, of course, proud that our township was considered as the best possible home for it and excited about the opportunities it would bring to our area.

Supervisor Rick Brown, initially in favor of the project, even saying at one point that he'd 'fall on his sword' for it, later flipped his position, publicly fighting it, and working with nearby residents to defeat it. Former supervisor Craig Dininny, originally against it, ended up supporting it. Interestingly, these two changes of opinion occurred practically at the same time. It was almost as if the the minute Craig supported it, Rick decided to fight it. Anyone who's ever doubted that some people make politics personal should consider this fact. But that is an entire separate blog post (or two). Anyway, that's water under the bridge.

While it was a beautiful and solemn ceremony, held at the Independence Visitor Center, complete with a color guard, costumed Revolutionary reenactors (including George Washington), and a moving rendition of our national anthem by The American Boy Choir,  it felt more like a funeral to me. Beautiful, respectful, dignified...and a sad ending to what would have been a significant, game-changing development in the history of our township. I and many others invested much blood, sweat and tears in a project we sincerely believed would be economically and culturally advantageous to Lower Providence, only to have the the truth about it remanufactured and spun to some people's political advantage. Only to have the project ultimately snapped up by Philadelphia and Governor Ed Rendell, who never misses an opportunity to do what's economically and culturally advantageous for the City of Brotherly Love.
I, at least, came away realizing that this project, having become more and more of a struggle to get across the finish line (in no small part to the opposition conjured up by Rick & Co., including current supervisor Colleen Eckman), created a situation that it did not take an opportunist like our esteemed Democrat governor long to work to his advantage and that of his Democrat friends in Philly.

As we sat there in the audience, listening to the speakers - from Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to Mayor Nutter, on up to Fast Eddie himself - regurgitate much of what we already know about this endeavor, it was unsettling to hear the disclosure of some things we didn't know about. Things like how it came to the Governor's attention that this project was at an impasse, and how driven he was, once seeing that the people of Lower Providence apparently didn't know what was good for them, to snag it for the point that he got up early on a Sunday morning to go tooling around town - in his sweats, no less -  with an aide and Mr. Lenfest, checking out buildings in the tourist areas of Philly, searching for something, anything, that might be appealing to the folks at ARC and that would also benefit tax-dollar starved Philadelphia.

(If I recall correctly, the timeline of when this occurred would have been about the same time last year Pennsylvania had an overdue approved state budget...but it would seem this was at the top of the Governor's priorities).

Obviously, he succeeded, and that chapter of the story of the ARC is closed. While we do have 78 more acres of preserved park space in our inventory, we lost out on a significant opportunity for jobs (during construction and in running the project), revenue from tourists, and taxes. Yes, infrastructure improvements would have to be made, and the ARC pledged money for that. Additional concerns would have been addressed during the land development process.

Ironically, the land swap also accomplished the removal of the land at 3rd and Chestnut from federal protection, archeological and otherwise. Given its proximity to other significant Philadelphia landmarks, that fact alone should be somewhat alarming. However, I digress.

But it was classic Ed Rendell, a Rendell we saw before at work in what's been called a theft of another cultural project in Montgomery County, The Barnes Museum. This subject, and Rendell's role in it, was documented in the 2009 film, 'The Art Of The Steal'.*
In case you're not familiar with that saga, the late Albert Barnes (1872-1951) amassed a collection in the early 20th century that makes even the Louvre envious. Barnes was an American art collector, a little-known medical scientist who had an eye for modern art. He used the money he made from his work to acquire paintings by unknown painters that no one else wanted. At the time, they were quite attainable. So, the doctor-scientist begin amassing a collection of these artworks sensing a value and aesthetic in them that most in the art world dismissed.

Today, these unknowns are household names: Czanne, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh, and their work is what we now call "impressionism" and "post-impressionism". In the current art market, the collection is worth far more than he ever could have paid for them at the time he acquired most of them, reportedly between $25-35 billion dollars. In all likelihood, not even the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art could afford to buy the entire collection at market value.

Mr. Barnes' will stipulated explicitly that the collection remain at the Barnes house in Montgomery County, that the home become an educational institution, and that the collection be used to school art students. "The Art of the Steal" chronicles the myriad lawsuits and wheeling & dealing that destroyed the integrity of one man's unique vision of his art and collection. According to the documentary, the paintings will be moved into a museum for the tourist crowd in Philadelphia rather than maintaining Barnes' wishes for an art school.

And I bet you can't guess who was a driving force for engineering that

The only advocate for the collection's relocation who appeared on camera is Gov. Ed Rendell, who spoke at length about the advantages for Philadelphia, saying it was a "no-brainer". Never once in the interview does the Governor say he's doing it in the best interest of the wishes of Barnes. The message is that he's doing what's in the best interests of Philadelphia and his political future. 

While they're not the only ones to blame for the loss of the ARC, I hope that Republicans Rick, Colleen and the rest of the 'not in my backyard' contingent are proud of themselves, if for nothing else than that they aided and abetted our Democrat, tax & spend governor in absconding with yet another valuable project that will certainly create revenue for Philly but do absolutely nothing to create jobs or put money back into Lower Providence or Montgomery County. At least Rick and Colleen had the common sense not to attend the ceremony since for them  it wasn't about the project at all. Smart move.

As someone named Barbara posted in response to an online article announcing the exchange said, "This should have been a magnificent Center in Valley Forge, built on private property purchased for the purpose. In Valley Forge, it would have created many jobs both in construction now and, later, in running it. Instead, it will be a little and cramped addition to an already built up area, creating minimal jobs now and probably into the future as well. It will also be just one more place in Philadelphia for people to go with nowhere to park. Shame on everyone for allowing a few selfish landowners to keep the original plans from becoming reality."

Amen Barbara.

*Facts and some references/phrasing for portions of this post were retrieved from an imdb review of the film.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fun with Fees

All parents know the start of school means there’s some ‘homework’ for us parents, too. I’m referring to the blizzard of contact, medical, permission, and other forms and a curriculum/class rules page for each class (for those of us with kids in middle to high school range) to review and fill out. And then there are the packets of Home & School information, which in recent years they have (thankfully) begun sending out via mail in advance of the first day of school, to reduce the chances they’ll be lost or forgotten.

Included in my ‘homework’ was an explanation about the newly implemented student activity fee and a form to complete and include with your check. The student activity fee is supposed to help offset the cost of providing athletic and other after-school programs to students.

The fee is set at $50 per family. Now, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that families who have, say, three children involved in after-school activities versus people like me, who have one, are essentially paying a lower per-child rate. The rate for that family breaks out at about $16 per kid, versus mine, who’s costing the full $50.

What was the school board thinking? How did they arrive at this figure? Isn’t the impact of a family of three kids on costs to provide after-school services more significant than one, and shouldn’t that cost be borne fairly by those families whose impact is greater? In other words, shouldn’t the family of three be paying $150? Or, should the family of one be paying $16?

Whatever that actual offset point is that the school board was trying to arrive at, they have clearly not assessed it fairly. I personally know of several parents who have contacted Methacton to complain about this, but from what I’m hearing it was treated in a dismissive manner to the parents as a minor issue. I have to wonder how many parents did what I did, which is to blow through the packet of papers, sign where necessary, write checks where necessary, and move on. I didn’t catch that the fee was per family, not per child. I have to believe if more parents realized this, there might be more phone calls to the school district.

And by the way, ‘fee’ does not include transportation. Your student who stays after school to participate in activities has no ride home. There are no more ‘late buses’; that was one of the budget cuts the school district implemented. Transportation is on you to arrange and pay for, if necessary.

There seems to be no logic at work here, but then again, this is the same school board that built a school many residents in both Lower Providence and Worcester believe we did not need, and renegotiated the superintendant’s contract early to give him a healthy raise and bonus, at the same time allowing the teacher’s contract to languish for a couple of years without resolution.