WARREN, Pa. – The agenda for Monday’s regular Warren City Council meeting included a number of actionable items, but it was a non-agenda item that brought many residents to the online meeting.
More than a dozen people took time to speak to Council about the proposed downtown hotel development project, specifically the proposed location at Breeze Point Landing. Most of those who spoke favor maintaining Breeze Point as a riverfront greenspace.
“I urge our city to stop pursuing moving forward with giving our valuable waterfront away,” Wendy McCain said. “Citizens do not support it, local businesses do not support it, our strategic plan does not support it.”
McCain was first to speak, and several who spoke after added that they wanted to second what McCain had said.
“Let’s wait and listen, work together to identify our vision for the downtown waterfront build on the existing strategic plan so that we all move in the same direction,” McCain added. “This needs to happen before we make any deals with developers.”
For some, it’s not the concept of a downtown hotel itself that is offputting, rather, the development plan as it sits currently.
“I think in the case of this hotel concept you can file this under, be careful what you wish for,” Bob Dilks said. “I do believe that a hotel is a needed commodity in our community. I’m not a fan of what has been proposed or at least the information that’s been circulated.”
Dilks, who said he has been involved with the City Planning Commission in the past, added that having grant funds aligned with an interested developer is something that shouldn’t be ignored.
“Money that comes in the form of grants, coupled with an interested developer is not something that happens every day,” Dilks said. “And I’m not going to say that this is the golden opportunity that must not be squandered, but it is definitely not something that we should look at lightly as a community. This is an opportunity for the city to take advantage of some stars aligning.”
The businesses that would most directly be impacted by a hotel at Breeze Point are those located in the former Loranger building and two of those business owners spoke to Council about their concerns.
“I have found that there are a lot of younger kids who are just getting into the outdoors, and that provides them very easy access to the river,” Pennwild Outdoors owner Ray Sturdevant said. “I had numerous teenagers come into the shop this year, buying bait, buying tackle and they’re fishing right there on that walking path under the bridge.
“With the development down there that us and Bent Run and AO, and Goat Fort have going on, taking away existing parking and minimizing what’s already there is going to be tough,” Sturdevant added.
Allegheny Outfitters’ Piper VanOrd, who outlined some of the drawbacks of the hotel last week, added that the four businesses in the former Loranger building could serve as the “spark” that ignites downtown development.
“I just think we’re onto something down there, all four of us that are in that building, that have invested our lives into that space,” VanOrd said. “We are a spark. We don’t have to be the town that has the cookie-cutter hotels, that removes the park downtown. We can be the town that saw the spark, and then decided to get together and work together to create something really unique and something that truly people will want to actually move here and live here and play here and be here.”
While most of the public comment session was cordial, there were some tense moments as well.
McCain went so far as to request that City Manager Nancy Freenock formally “recognize that this project does not have the support of the community, and we abandoned the idea of putting a hotel and giving our waterfront property away.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not within my purview,” Freenock, who detailed the benefits of the proposed hotel last week, responded. “This is a matter that must be decided by Council. My job is to run the city’s daily operations and to bring ideas for development to Council. Council is the ultimate arbiter, not me.”
If the grant funds currently available are not used, or are returned to the state, Freenock said, the city might have difficulty getting future funds down the road.
“We have $5.5 million in (Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program) funds and it’s been suggested that the city give them back,” Freenock said. “Chances are that RACP is not going to be funded for a number of years because of the condition of the state budget. So sure we can hand it back, but don’t anticipate that we will be able to draw on those monies in the near future. That’s the reality.”
Mayor Maurice Cashman assured everyone in attendance that a public meeting would be held prior to Council making a decision on the proposed hotel. When that meeting will occur is in a bit of limbo due to the pandemic.
“I had been looking for the first week in February (for a public meeting),” Freenock said. “But we have a few city employees that are now in quarantine. So the beginning of February, looks like it will not work for a live meeting. We may be able to host something virtually and Teena (Leary, Executive Secretary) has been looking at the zoom platform to see how many people we can accommodate at one time.”
Hank LeMeur suggested that both residents and the public approach the decision with a simple question at the forefront.
“What I would say is the sequence of events is is almost reversed here,” LeMeur said. “First, I would say ‘What’s the vision?’ And the vision entrepreneurs have developed is experience retail, and it’s pretty clear that experience retail, as well as the recreation, is something we can grow on. And if we grow that properly if we have a vision for that, and if we properly feed that vision, then people will want to build hotels and you won’t have to give them $2.5 million.”