Making The Pitch
City manager outlines vision for hotel project
It’s no secret that much of the feedback received on a downtown hotel possibility has been negative.
But until now there was no publicly available site plan for what such development might look like. That means — until today — there was really no specific project to be opposed to.
In addition to now releasing a site plan, City Manager Nancy Freenock laid out her stance on the proposed development with an emphasis on what it might mean for the future of the City of Warren.
The proposal laid out in that plan — while theoretical — provides a picture of how all of the ideas or riverfront development could fit together.
From the top, though, that will include the loss of much of Breeze Point Landing, though the public walkway next to the river would remain.
“The loss of greenspace along the riverfront is lamentable,” Freenock said, noting the city supports 20 other parks. “Losing one so that tourists will choose to stay in Warren and not travel to Bradford or Jamestown is one wayto promote local business.
“Other businesses will not come to Warren unless there is a customer base to support them. The declining population of the county, alone, is not sufficient to draw new businesses into the city’s commercial core.”
She also laid out arguments for several practical aspects of the project.
First of all: location, location, location.
“For the hotel to be successful, it must be an attractive, easily accessible location,” she said.
The riverfront meets that objective — providing close access to the downtown’s restaurants, bars and amenities.
A host of other sites were considered: Point Park (it floods), the former Nickles and Dimes site on the west side (it’s too small), Crescent Park (deed restrictions prohibit development), the former Home St. and East St. school sites (not in the downtown) as well as the eastern portion of the Loranger building at the base of Liberty St. (owner doesn’t want to sell).
The state has awarded $5.5 million in grant funds for redevelopment in the riverfront area but those funds require a 100 percent match.
The city doesn’t have that kind of cash available on its own and the developer — Hanes Hotel Development LLC of St. Marys — has agreed “to use some of the project equity” as match to be able to make the roadway changes needed as laid out in the site plan.
“The city proposes a sub-grant of $2.5 million,” to the developer, Freenock said. “The argument is often made that the city should not utilize taxpayer dollars — grant funds — for some projects. However, it must be emphasized that grant funds are dispersed across the state and when the city utilizes grant funding, some of our residents’ tax dollars are being returned to and invested in our community, rather than another locale.”
The project includes much more than just the hotel — Freenock said the proposal includes relocation of public restrooms to the city-owned parcel at the other end of Clark St. as well as a pump track for bicycles, assuming it wouldn’t interfere with business operations in the area. That parcel is adjacent to the TAWC building.
“City staff also believes that there may be sufficient funds to pave the trail behind the HIY building, pending owner approval,” she said. “This paved trail would aid AO (Allegheny Outfitters) in its operations and would connect to an existing city trail system to further enhance the pedestrian riverfront experience.”
Freenock insists that the city will work with the businesses in the area throughout this process if the project moves ahead.
“Preliminary discussions were held more than 18 months ago,” Freenock said. “Further discussions will be held if council approves the hotel project.”
And that council action will be needed to move forward.
Mayor Maurice Cashman said during Monday’s council meeting that a public meeting would be held prior to any council action and early February was mentioned as when that meeting will aim to be held.
Should that timeline come to fruition, Freenock said the city may be asked to consider the subgrant to the developer at the February meeting.
“Thus far, the city has spent no money on final engineering studies as the project has not been finally approved by council,” Freenock said.
She said the developer also isn’t wanting to invest funds in design until they know the project can move ahead.
That means that many questions — at this point — are unanswered, such as what the hotel would look like and
how many floors it will include.
However, she did indicate that a developer’s agreement that would need council approval would address many of the controversial issues, such as the preservation of the riverfront trail as well as the need for the building to fit into the historic character of the downtown.
“Accommodations on both sides will be necessary as we plan for the future of the Warren Riverfront,” she added. “It’s not just the hotel. We have to look at the bigger picture.”
And that bigger picture Freenock outlined is the future of the city.
“It must be understood that the city is limited in what it can do to generate revenue and council owes a fiduciary duty to all taxpayers in the city to optimize use of all city property,” she said.
The city owns many of the parcels subject to this proposal.
“Developing attractive, paved parking areas will benefit those businesses on Clark Street. It will organize parking and may result in additional spaces. If the number of spaces decreases, the parking garage is a short distance from Clark Street and offers free parking on nights and weekends.
Freenock insisted that increasing taxes shouldn’t be the way that the city covers its operational costs in the future.
“Encouraging new development, which in turn generates additional tax revenues, is paramount to maintaining a vibrant community,” she said. “By working together to further revitalize the downtown the area will be attractive to tourists who will extend their stays, and to those wishing to remain in, or relocate to, our corner of Pennsylvania.”
She highlighted the city’s 24/7 police, fire and EMS services.
“If not from new development, where then will the additional revenues come from as operational costs continue to rise?” she asked.
She also indicated that repairs will be needed at Breeze Point “in the not-too-distant future” and asked where the funds for that project will come from.
“As your city manager, I am asking that you review materials that will be made available and keep an open mind,” she said. “If new development in the city is discouraged, we will lose revenues, whether from real estate taxes that could have been generated or from earned income taxes that could have been collected, not just from the hotel but from the other new businesses which could have flourished due to the existence of the hotel.”