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Study not without controversy

April 9, 2008
DEAN WELLS
The Esolen Study is here. And not without its share of controversy. Why was it a year overdue? The $100,000 study, assigned by the County Commissioners to PLACES, a tourism consulting firm based in Easton, Pa. and New Orleans, should have been completed by February 2007, according to PLACES director Gary Esolen. Esolen said in Feb. 2006 that the study should take no more than a year to complete, but may be able to condensed into six to nine months. He confirmed that statement in an email to the Times Observer on March 27. The final piece of the three-part report was delivered to Warren County Vacation Bureau Director Diane Shawley on Dec. 15, 2007, nearly a year overdue going by Esolen's schedule. Why the delay? According to Warren County Commissioners John Bortz and John Eggleston, they were told Esolen was having health problems, which delayed the study. 'We tried to pursue where the hell it was,' Jim Decker, CEO and President of the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry said. Decker was a member of the study's steering committee. 'All we heard was Gary was sick.' Shawley, whose agency played the lead role in administering the state grant, had a different explanation. According to Shawley, Esolen's office in New Orleans was damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Shawley said that Esolen asked her for permission to work on several government projects during the time he was working on the Warren tourism study. 'He told me he lost his business in New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina,' Shawley said. 'The government gave him some contracts. He told me, 'I really need these,' so I gave him until the life of the (grant) contract - Dec. 31 (2007).' When asked if the commissioners were informed of Shawley's decision to move the study's deadline to accommodate Esolen's other projects, Commissioner John Bortz replied: 'It wasn't framed to me in that manner. That will be a matter that I will look into.' Eggleston concurred: 'I never heard any of that. I never talked to Gary directly. All I can tell you was what I was told: he was having some health problems and Diane wanted to extend the deadline. We agreed to that.' Esolen contradicted Shawley in his explanation for the delay in an email on March 25, saying he needed to deal with 'minor health issues that demanded attention.' 'As a result of the failure of the levees in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, we were without our computer server and system and had email down for a month or so; later we gave up our large New Orleans office. However, Diane must have misunderstood something, because those events were in 2005 and would not of affected this project, and I do not recall any Katrina-related delays.' Esolen added: 'These projects often take more time than anticipated because of the difficulty of getting the planning groups together, and because it takes time for people to assimilate the reports and react to them as we progress.' Esolen elaborated in a second email two days later, adding more reasons for the delay: upcoming elections, scheduling conflicts and county factionalism. He denied asking for an extension to complete the Warren tourism study so his firm could undertake other projects. 'Several things made the preparation for implementation slower than we anticipated,' Esolen wrote. 'Perhaps the most important reason was that scheduling meetings at times and places that were convenient for a fairly large group of busy people was difficult.' Esolen reiterated that there were also scheduling conflicts in the spring and early summer of 2007 due to 'a minor health problem that required attention.' 'Secondly,' Esolen wrote, 'the civic leadership in Warren county is divided by factionalism. We encountered numerous citizens and business people who described the county as divided between 'old money' interests represented by the WCCBI, and broader citizen and business interests. A consultant retained in a separate economic development process said that factionalism was one of the most important problems in the area. A number of the initiatives we consider critically important will require cooperation among diverse interests, and it was difficult to get all those interests in the same room.' Esolen added that he met with state officials in Harrisburg to give them a verbal report on the state of the project and reason for the delays. 'We discussed the factionalism of the county civic leadership and were informed that others had experienced the same problem,' wrote Esolen. Esolen said that PLACES was able to deliver a final report 'at any time after December of 2006, but we were concerned to get as much buy-in and involvement in implementation as possible. We struggled through the summer of 2007 to do so.' According to Esolen, Shawley recommended extending a September 2007 deadline to have the study completed by three months. Esolen said his firm was concerned that the upcoming election season 'was beginning to make it very difficult to command the time and attention of the county commissioners.' Concerning Shawley's explanation that he asked for the deadline to be extended to work on other projects, Esolen wrote in his March 27 email: 'We did not request that the contract deadline be extended so that we could complete other work, and the damage suffered from Hurricane Katrina was well behind us long before the summer of 2007. I don't think we undertook any new government contracts during those months, or wrapped up any old ones. In fact, we never requested a contract extension at all - such a request would have been in writing - but we agreed that it was a wise decision under the total circumstances.' 'There were some struggles in the execution of the planning process,' Bortz conceded. 'While we have a completed project, I feel the end result would have been better if the initial momentum had been maintained. Unnecessary delays have a price. That price is the energy of the volunteers in that planning process. Volunteers lose patience.' 'We agree that the project lost some momentum, but attribute it to the difficulty of getting the right people together, ' Esolen said in his March 27 email. 'On two separate occasions we traveled to Warren from across the state for scheduled meetings at which only one or two people showed up. Other meetings were poorly attended or missing (invited) representation from important interests. Our decision to make more visits outside of the steering committee process was unusual in a project of this sort, and was necessitated by those difficulties. Developing tourism in Warren County is a tough assignment, but we think it can be done if our recommendations are implemented.'
 
 

 

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