Legacy of a ‘hands-on’ mayor

Photo by Blaine Shahan. Outgoing Mayor Charlie Smithgall talks to a reporter in his office Friday.

The city’s streets department was tied up and couldn’t collect it right away, so residents called Mayor Charlie Smithgall.

Instead of calling on an assistant, Smithgall got into his Chevy Suburban, picked up the unfortunate feline himself and took it to the streets department building to be preserved in a freezer in the event an owner would claim it.

Vintage Smithgall.

By all accounts, whether you like his politics or not, the 60-year-old pharmacist has been a hands-on, Mr. Fix-It-type mayor over his eight years in office.

On top of grappling with the big issues, such as trying to get the controversial convention center-hotel project moving along, dealing with crime and stoking downtown revitalization, Smithgall loved being in the thick of all things great and small in the city.

Constantly tethered to his always-turned-on cell phone, he was out on fires, snow storms, drug raids, murder scenes and car crashes at all hours of the night, seven days a week.

Since mid-March, he’s had 16,411 calls on a cell phone number he gives out to anyone who asks for it.

He got a kick out of presiding over weddings and married his last couple Saturday afternoon in Binns Park.

Judgment of history

How will history judge the Republican mayor, who will be replaced by Democrat Rick Gray on Tuesday?

Gray agrees that Smithgall was an ardent city cheerleader.

To be sure, Smithgall’s overwhelming loss in November was painful to him and the three Republican city council members who lost with him. (The term of the other Republican councilman Luis Mendoza, who lost to Smithgall in the mayoral primary, expires at the end of this year, leaving the entire council Democratic.)

City Republican candidate supporters have blamed the losses on anything from President Bush’s drop in ratings and state lawmakers’ infamous pay raise to overall anti-incumbent sentiment and lack of support from county Republicans.

The mayor himself has said it was simply too tough to overcome the Democratic majority of voters in the city.

His opponents said he didn’t have the type of leadership needed to move the city forward.

Whatever the case, Smithgall has accomplished enough since 1998, when he defeated Democratic incumbent Janice Stork, to merit him a respectable place in the city’s history, observers said.

“I think it will judge him kindly. You have to understand the state of the city when he took office eight years ago,’’ said city GOP committee chairman Russ Miller.

“The city was just recovering from a multimillion-dollar deficit when Charlie was elected. There was a record number of homes for sale, very little development, crime rates were high; it was rather bleak.”

During his campaigns against Mendoza and Gray, Smithgall’s opponents attacked him for what they said was his taking credit for other people’s work, blame-shifting and for being bitter and vindictive when things didn’t go his way. They also accused him of being too heavy-handed.

Prime example: promising $900,000 to the county Redevelopment Authority for the Clipper Magazine Stadium project without council approval.

Smithgall, who has admitted he is impatient with bureaucracy, countered that he had to make a decision on the spot or else risk losing the stadium. The stadium has been a stunning success, which probably took some of the sting out of the criticism that he erred in judgment.

The outgoing mayor does wear his political heart on his sleeve, which has worked to both his advantage and detriment.

Many constituents find his approachability, plain talk, emotion and his cutting through red-tape refreshing, qualities that don’t always go over well in the political arena.

To be sure, he wasn’t exactly graceful when congratulating his opponent on election night, gruffly saying to Gray: “I’m giving you a city that’s in better shape than when I got it, and I hope you keep it going.”

During his campaigns, bloggers got personal and questioned his health in relation to him being overweight. The mayor, who has a pacemaker and has had heart surgery, said he is in good health.

Given the numbers of people with weight problems or health issues, that probably came across more as a nasty jab by critics than a legitimate concern.

In many ways, the mayor is straight out of central casting: the portly, big-personality type full of corny, sometimes off-color jokes.

He has fun. He has a colossal collection of toys. He has one of the largest collections of Civil War cannons and other military paraphernalia in the United States and loves using them for re-enanctments, city events and fund-raisers. With his knowledge of artillery, he introduced some spectacular fireworks to the city at both July 4th and New Year’s Eve celebrations.

He was also the artillery coordinator for the movie “Gettysburg,” and his cannons were featured in an A&E documentary.

City restaurateurs love to see him coming, often bestowing upon him their house specialties.

“I have to eat it or they’ll get mad,’’ the mayor joked.

Indeed, while lunching at Character’s Pub in downtown Lancaster last week, the owners sent him out a bread pudding, one of the mayor’s favorites.

“He has done a great job for the city; we’ll miss him,’’ said restaurant co-owner George Centini, who has started a number of successful restaurants in the city.

Centini told the mayor business has been booming and thanked him for helping to bring the city back to life. “We’ve been here one and a half years and we’re very happy,’’ he told Smithgall.

Changes in city

Smithgall supporters said when he first took office, there were about 900 homes for sale. As he is leaving office, there are about 200. Homes are fetching some handsome prices.

The crime rate dipped an overall 11 percent, with gun crimes declining 65 percent.

“I think he has been fabulous,” said state Sen. Gib E. Armstrong, R-13th District. “I have talked with him every day since he has been elected, and he always discussed what we could do for the city’s economic development.” “Charlie was hands-on, he was always out there, running himself ragged, at every function shaking hands and cutting ribbons,” the senator said.

The mayor said his first order of business eight years ago was to get involved in saving the vacant landmark Watt & Shand building in Penn Square.

The private sector got on board with High Industries, Fulton Bank and Lancaster Newspaper Inc., publishers of the Sunday News, Intelligencer Journal and Lancaster New Era, buying the buildings from York-based The Bon-Ton Department Stores Inc.

The companies formed Penn Square Partners and have since been working with the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority to build a convention center and hotel.

The project has stalled repeatedly, held up in courts by local hoteliers and most recently by two county commissioners, Molly Henderson and Dick Shellenberger, who said they are concerned about the impact on taxpayers.

The mayor said he is disappointed he won’t be in office to see the project to fruition, but hopes it happens someday. He and project supporters say it is the “last piece of the puzzle” in downtown revitalization.

“I wish everybody would get off this and let the convention center happen,’’ he said.

Smithgall said he would have liked to have seen the east side of Lancaster Square on the 100 block of North Queen Street rehabilitated, but is happy with this summer’s completion of Binns Park on the west side.

Also left for the Gray administration is the city-owned Lancaster Press building. One developer wants to build 21-story condominium towers, in addition to developing the Press building.

Other accomplishments under Smithgall’s tenure: Lancaster was named an All-America City in 2000; the Rocky Springs carousel was returned to the city; construction of the new police station; the re-establishment of the Human Relations Commission; the redevelopment of the Hamilton Watch Building into upscale condominiums; and the designation of the city’s original four square miles into the nation’s largest historic district.

Using his scientific background, the mayor introduced microfiltration technology to upgrade the city’s water plant to meet federal guidelines, saving the cost of building a new plant.

Under his watch, the Keystone Opportunity Zone, a state tax-exemption program designed to attract businesses, was established at South Prince and Seymour streets. He re-opened Cabbage Hill’s Fire Station 6, previously closed by Mayor Stork, returned weekly street sweeping and made street parking free on Saturdays. In addition, his administration upped the number of police officers from 91 to 104.

Some of the biggest challenges he faced over the past eight years included dealing with trash hauling. He was opposed to having a single-hauler plan proposed by those who were annoyed with the large number of trash haulers in the city and the noise and traffic problems they cause. He countered that he did not want to ruin the livelihoods of those trash haulers. In spring of 2000, a spring trash clean-up plan turned into a 10-day fiasco when city residents put out tons and tons of trash, blocking sidewalks. Another big uproar was the riot that happened after the 2000 Puerto Rican Day Parade on South Duke Street. Not surprisingly, the mayor walked into the heart of it, trying to talk people into settling down and going home.

Smithgall, who will go back to working full time in his family-owned pharmacies, said his tenure has been educational and exciting.

When asked how he thinks history will treat him, he responded: “I will let time be the judge.”

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