Why? 'Cause Bracken says so
Think for a moment or two what you would do if you had $500,000 to spend on tourism promotion in Washington County. Did buying fake grass for a minor-league baseball team's sloppy field pop into your head? Probably not. But that's exactly what the Washington County Tourism Promotion Agency did on Thursday. Its members voted, 8-3, to plunk down half a million dollars in hotel tax proceeds over the next decade in order to finance the installation of artificial turf at Consol Energy Park, home of the Washington Wild Things. Another $500,000 for the project will come from your state tax dollars. There's no debating that the Wild Things are a major draw, second only to the Meadows in terms of attracting visitors to the county. And no one really debates the fact that the current grass field has significant drainage problems and should be replaced. The objections from those who opposed the tourism spending centered mainly on the use of that particular funding source and the way in which the proposal was handled. Observer-Reporter publisher Tom Northrop, who cast one of the dissenting votes, believed it would have been better to use the local share of slots proceeds from The Meadows casino. But the artificial turf project was not among those forwarded by the county commissioners for slots funding. And the reason is becoming clear. Why use the slots money, and possibly raise the ire of local communities vying for that funding, when you can just strong-arm the tourism panel into coughing up the cash? Northrop was told by county Commissioner Bracken Burns, who was pushing the Wild Things project, "We're the ones who gave you the hotel tax money, and we can take it away, too." If that's not a threat, I don't know what is. I'm pretty sure if you look up the word "arrogant" in the dictionary, you'll find a picture of Burns. But the attempted bullying didn't stop there. Jeff Kotula, the executive director of Washington County Chamber of Commerce, who just happens to be chairman of the commissioner-appointed panel that decided on the use of slots money, allegedly called tourism panel member Jamie Johns of The Meadows to "remind" her that the commissioners appointed her to the board. Supposedly, all the newer members of the board got these "friendly reminders." And there's more. A state-level official also got into the high-pressure act, and some board members were told that if they didn't vote the "right way," they could easily be replaced because they serve at the pleasure of the commissioners. One of the affirmative votes for the $500,000 outlay came from board member Bob Gregg, perhaps better known as the WJPA play-by-play announcer for Wild Things games. Gregg might not get paid by the Wild Things or Ballpark Scholarships Inc., which owns the park and is the entity getting the money, but the average third-grader could spot the conflict of interest in his vote. At least the tourism board representatives from the Wild Things and Cal U., which plays games on the field, had the good sense to abstain. One might also complain that the reason artificial turf is needed at this juncture is that the field was not constructed properly in the first place. Now they want public money to bail them out. As I said earlier, no one is denying that the Wild Things are an asset for the community, and no one is claiming that new turf is not needed. But should $1 million in tax money be used for this? It brought to mind the time when we citizens said we didn't want our state tax money to be used to build stadiums in Pittsburgh, and our so-called "leaders" in Harrisburg stuffed it down our throats anyway. It also makes one wonder why the county even has a tourism promotion panel. Why don't Burns and his equally shameless cronies just make the decisions themselves, in a back room somewhere, and eliminate this charade.