Editor’s note: One of our goals at yourdailylocal.com is to make sure we bring readers the information they need to take part in an informed discussion about the people, events, policies and proposals that affect them most. To that end, we bring you this Point/Counterpoint feature regarding the proposed downtown hotel.
Allegheny Outfitters’ Piper VanOrd explains how the hotel development at the base of Liberty Street could negatively impact the City and existing businesses. Read the counter by Warren City Manager Nancy Freenock here.
By Piper VanOrd, Allegheny Outfitters
For those that may be unfamiliar, logistically speaking, our operation at Allegheny Outfitters (AO) is very robust. Successfully moving hundreds of people up and down the river every week requires a certain amount of space. Every hour consists of maneuvering three 15-passenger vans with trailers (keeping in mind that one 15-passenger van and trailer is 39 feet in length), loading each with 17-foot canoes and kayaks 5-high, private boat loading/unloading (for those with their own just needing a shuttle), gear, coolers, families, kids, dogs, etc. Spanning 107 miles of the Allegheny, we help dozens of Scout troops conquer their 100-mile badge every summer, along with a hefty share of two and three-day overnight excursions. It can easily take these groups an hour to load gear from vehicles for multi-day trips. We have continually stressed the nature of our operation to City leadership, including prior to our decision to move downtown, and were assured they would work with us in good faith.
With this hotel proposal, more than a quarter of the gravel lot we currently lease from the City to operate will become parking lots for the proposed hotel, and another third will become a public launch. We are left with an odd oval-ish type triangle to operate. This space raises serious safety and congestion concerns for us at AO. Where and how are we to safely operate? Where are we loading/unloading rental canoes and kayaks from trailers? Where are folks loading and unloading all their belongings to head out on trips ranging from 6-107 miles? In parking spaces? Are we then driving vans and trailers to them, zigzagging through parking lots, or are they coming into our small area as well? All our vans won’t fit in our new space at once each hour, so I’m sure regular practice will become loading and unloading on the road out front as quick as we can – again, gear, kids, dogs, etc. That’ll back up traffic for a solid 20-25 minutes each time, per van, but our small staff will hustle as fast as we can, lugging 86-pound canoes two at a time through the bottleneck. This does not include the congestion of the actual public boat launch directly next to our small area. Anyone that has used Big Bend at Kinzua Dam or Buckaloons understands the chaos of a public boat launch. That will all be present here as well, only it will be ever-present directly in the space we are trying to use to operate. We can’t forget traffic from guests looking to enjoy Bent Run Brewing Co, Goat Fort Climbing, and Pennwild Outdoors, along with 18-wheeler deliveries for all our businesses and IMT, and the occasional Transit Authority bus heading on their route. A downtown boat launch has the potential to be more popular than both Kinzua Dam and Buckaloons if done correctly. But as proposed, if the goal is to further revitalize the area so tourists will extend their stays or possibly relocate, this plan will have the opposite effect, creating confusion and congestion to the point no one will want to return. That’s not meant to be mean or negative, it is simply the reality of the small size of this space, which is what we have been trying to have an honest conversation about for well over a year.
We are not against a hotel. I took part in the 2017 Hotel Feasibility Study and thought a hotel downtown was a good idea. We help thousands of folks of all skill levels and abilities get outside and that includes those looking for lodging. But as we quickly realized in 2019 as the first business to open on Clark Street, the space is not as large as it appears, and well thought out development would be imperative. We understand the City has been given more RACP grant money, what that means to a community our size, and the strings that are attached to it as far as a match. Bringing folks to the table requires a lot of time and effort, as we have learned through our own experience of revitalizing the old Loranger building on Clark Street, a venture that first started in 2016. But we stand firm that development for the sake of development is rarely a smart decision when we look back. And although we fully appreciate that City Council owes a fiduciary duty to all taxpayers in the city to optimize the use of all city property, we genuinely believe better, more creative options exist.
Breeze Point Landing is our only public green space along the river downtown and received overwhelming positive support to remain a park in the 2019 Parks and Recreation Community Survey. This public park sits across the gravel lot outside our front doors. Although our City Manager insists the park does not get used, we watch daily as folks of all ages enjoy it. Jefferson DeFrees kiddos walk down and do projects and run around, visitors grab a bench to read, teenagers’ fish, folks walk their dogs, and others use the pavilion for a little fresh air on their break before heading back to the office to finish their day. We’ve seen drum circles and geocachers. While other communities are desperately trying to create green spaces, we are giving our only one along the riverfront downtown away for its removal and replacement of a structure and parking lots.
On Dec. 10 we were made aware by the City that the proposed hotel project was no longer on the table. To our surprise, we were told the City was now looking at putting in a boat launch only that would (basically) extend Liberty Street into the river, similar to the Buckaloons boat ramp. A Dec. 14 deadline for Council to discuss a grant opportunity with PA Fish and Boat Commission was looming, and they requested we get letters of support from everyone in our building, along with any other groups or organizations we may know. We acted quickly and had letters to them from multiple businesses and organizations before the deadline. Public access is important. We’ve seen firsthand how special our natural surroundings in Warren are and were proud and excited that our City was ready to start embracing them.
Downtown has no safe access to the river, which is silly considering thousands of water enthusiasts could access businesses and restaurants. Although congestion would still exist, this “boat launch only” proposal had a clear, defined space for us to safely operate. A couple of people have asked, and we think it’s important to include, a public launch can be used by anyone and everyone, not just AO. Fishermen in jet and drift boats, paddlers in canoes and kayaks, and most importantly, water rescue. It would be a dream for stewardship projects such as the Allegheny River Cleanup as well, safely removing rubbish from canoes and kayaks vs taking it up a dirt path on a riverbank. More than half our trips every year do not start or end at our location. AO would use this just as we do Kinzua Dam, Betts, Buckaloons, Wildwood, West Hickory, Tionesta, President, Oil City and Emlenton launches.
Respectfully, the feedback from our community isn’t negative, it is honest. The people that work and live here do not want to see their only public park along the river downtown given away and replaced by a hotel and parking lots. Our city and county residents are excited that a cluster of young entrepreneurs took a chance and are committed and invested in bringing positive change to our downtown, revitalizing an old warehouse that sat empty for over two decades. As for visitors, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the thought of knowingly creating a serious safety and logistical nightmare for the very folks we are trying to bring here.
Although this scenario may appear negative on the surface, our community is having a serious conversation about a space on Clark Street that has for decades been neglected and unloved, and that itself can be a positive step in the right direction. We moved downtown in good faith – without being given any property or tax incentives – to be part of the solution, bringing thousands of outdoor enthusiasts with us. To hear our City Manager say our city will lose revenues “from the other new businesses which could have flourished due to the existence of the hotel” is discouraging. This completely discounts the enormous weight that has been put on the new local, grassroots small businesses on Clark Street, and AO especially, to the point we are questioning whether we remain viable down the road should this hotel come to fruition. We are that small business that could have flourished.
Have thoughts on the proposed downtown hotel? Send them as a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].