Charlie Smithgall, a former Lancaster mayor known for his strong anti-crime policies and early support for the downtown convention center as a key to the city’s economic revitalization, died Tuesday. He was 77.
Debbie Smithgall, his wife, said he died at 3:30 a.m. at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. She said her husband had been having heart problems, but the severity only became clear several days ago.
“His heart just gave out,” she said.
Smithgall was admitted to the hospital on Sept. 2.
Smithgall, a businessman and pharmacist whose hands-on approach to running City Hall got things done but occasionally rankled members of City Council, served as mayor for two terms, from 1998 until 2006.
"He loved being mayor. I don’t think there was ever a day that he said, ‘Oh, I have to go to city hall.' He had the heart of the city in his heart. He loved the people. He loved what was going on downtown," Debbie Smithgall said.
Upon being sworn in for his first term, The Intelligencer Journal newspaper reported: "Smithgall's voice wavered when he noted that, 'Until a few moments ago, I was just a pharmacist … now I'm mayor of Lancaster.'"
Smithgall's term as mayor ended after he lost to Rick Gray in the 2005 election. He would run twice more against Gray in 2009 (losing by less than 300 votes) and 2013. Smithgall also fell in the 2007 Republican primary for county commissioner to current state Sen. Scott Martin.
Smithgall's political aspirations began several years before he ran for mayor. In 1994, he unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party's endorsement for state House in the city's 96th Legislative District. The GOP backed another candidate, Steve McDonald, and Smithgall did not seek the nomination. McDonald would go on to lose to Democratic state Rep. Mike Sturla that fall.
Gray said Smithgall “certainly did a lot to allow me to build on many of the steps that he took. If you think about the convention center, he really instigated a lot of that. We were political opponents, but I never questioned his commitment to Lancaster and his love of Lancaster."
Besides the convention center, Gray cited the new police station, Red Rose Transit Authority's Queen Street Station, Clipper Magazine Stadium and Binns Park as major projects Smithgall had a hand in.
"Lancaster will be a little different without him," Gray said.
Matt Parido, who was Smithgall's chief of staff for the eight years he was mayor, said, "Charlie and I hit it off right away. It was the start of my career, and we worked together every day. ... He would say, 'What can we do today to make the city better?'"
Bernie Harris was a reporter for another LNP predecessor, the Lancaster New Era, and covered Smithgall’s first term as the city hall reporter.
“Charlie was a tireless advocate for the city,” Harris, now the city clerk, recalled. “When Charlie was elected in 1998, the downtown was struggling. The city as a whole was struggling. There were some improvements made during his predecessor’s term (Janice Stork), but it was Charlie that fired up the revitalization of downtown Lancaster.”
Harris described Smithgall as “mercurial.”
“If things were not portrayed how he would like them to be, then he would let you know that,” Harris said.
Advocate for big projects
From Smithgall's first days in office, he was an advocate for development in the city, working with the Lancaster Campaign to target locations for redevelopment. He worked with Republicans at the county and state level to advance plans for the convention center, which he said had been floating around in one form or another for decades, Harris said.
Smithgall did not want to see the former Watt & Shand department store become a branch of the Harrisburg Area Community College, Harris and Debbie Smithgall both recalled, which was one of the ideas for the landmark department store whose facade was incorporated into what would become the Lancaster Marriott at Penn Square and Lancaster County Convention Center.
Six months into his first term, the first studies about a potential downtown convention center were ordered.
The next year, a massive plan was unveiled, proposing a convention center and hotel complex that would occupy the former Watt & Shand department store site as well as several surrounding properties.
Controversy ensued, as a group of 37 local hoteliers went to court over a hotel room tax that would be used to fund the center. Another contentious subject was the fate of historic buildings that would be impacted by the project.
Eventually, the courts ruled against the hoteliers, and the project continued.
In July 2001, with planning underway for the convention center, Smithgall posed with community leaders in front of the former Watt & Shand building for a front-page photo for the New Era, as Marriott was announced as the hotel partner for the project.
The developer for the hotel was Penn Square Partners, which included Penn Square General Corp., a High Industries affiliate; Fulton Bank; and Lancaster Newspapers Inc., a predecessor to LNP Media Group. An affiliate of LNP Media Group, which publishes LNP | LancasterOnline, is a limited partner in Marriott owner and operator Penn Square Partners.
At the time of the announcement, an opening date of 2004 was targeted. However, controversy and opposition to the center continued long after Smithgall's tenure as mayor ended. The center eventually opened in 2009.
Smithgall was also key to bringing Clipper Magazine Stadium to the city. Initial plans would have put it in Manheim Township, possibly along Fruitville Pike where the Shoppes at Belmont is located, or across Harrisburg Avenue from Long's Park, where The Crossings at Conestoga Creek is.
Smithgall wrote a “firmly worded” letter to the state – which was providing much of the project’s funding – and promised the city would fill the funding gap. Smithgall saw it as a one-time opportunity for the city, and he took it. In 2005, he promised $900,000 to the county Redevelopment Authority for the stadium project without council approval.
He said at the time that he had to make a decision or risk losing the stadium. Ultimately, Gray asked the money be withdrawn from the 2006 budget and he was later able to secure additional funding from the state for the stadium.
The stadium had its groundbreaking ceremony on April 28, 2004, and officially opened on May 11, 2005, to become the first and only home of the Lancaster Barnstormers, a minor league baseball team in the Atlantic League, which is also headquartered at the stadium.
Smithgall called the first season a trial-and-error period, saying that there weren't many traffic problems and that noise complaints from neighbors regarding the fireworks tapered off over the summer.
The stadium turned out to be a success. The attendance at Barnstormers games skyrocketed in the years after it opened, and hosted special events like concerts by Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Def Leppard and Bryan Adams.
In 2022, the Lancaster Barnstormers was voted the Ballpark Digest’s Best MLB Partner League Ballpark for the third consecutive year.
In the 1990s, efforts to curtail drug-related crime in certain areas of the city resulted in the creation of the Street Operations Group, a quick-response team of officers known for their distinctive yellow shirts.
Prior to Smithgall's tenure, the "yellow shirts" were the subject of controversy, with residents of the city's Southeast claiming abusive treatment by the officers on the team and calling for racial sensitivity training for the team.
Smithgall positioned himself as a "tough on crime" candidate for mayor, and when he took office, he made the Street Operations Group a central part of his strategy. He increased funding for the unit from $95,000 in 1997 to $175,000 in 1998, and touted their role in helping produce the dramatic drop in city crime rates, especially a 28 percent drop between 1997 and 1998
The tactics of the "yellow shirts" involved converging in large numbers - sometimes a dozen or more officers - on a particular spot in the city and making arrests very quickly, then remaining in the area to issue more minor citations.
Tom Baldrige, former president of the Lancaster Chamber, said Smithgall was the city's biggest cheerleader.
"He created a mind-set change within the city," Baldrige said. "He was a very can-do man. There wasn’t a problem in front of him that he wouldn’t try to solve."
Mayor Danene Sorace said she has “profound respect for those answering the call of public service and leading in Lancaster’s City Hall. During his time as Mayor, Charlie worked to spur economic development, enrich the downtown, and build out the City’s infrastructure… .”
Democratic State Rep. Mike Sturla said while he and Smithgall did not agree policy-wise, "we shared the same end goal, and that was to make Lancaster a better place.”
Art Morris, who was the city's mayor before Stork, graduated with Smithgall from McCaskey High School in 1963.
Morris called Smithgall a "true Lancastrian. ... He was a special and unique individual."
“I heard on the way to market that he passed, so I pulled out my yearbook, and it said he wanted to be a pharmacist," Morris said.
Smithgall earned a bachelor's degree in pharmacy from Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science in 1968.
Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni was a council member and president during Smithgall’s time as mayor.
“Charlie was passionate about Lancaster and the people that lived in it,” Diamantoni said. “... He spoke very directly and clearly. No confusion or difficulty understanding what he wanted.”
County Commissioner Josh Parsons paid tribute to Smithgall on Twitter, writing, “... he always took time to listen to anyone who wanted to talk with him. He cared deeply about the community and will be missed.”
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker wrote, “Deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Charlie Smithgall, a dedicated public servant, devoted husband and father, and friend to myself and so many in our community. Cindy and I offer our condolences to Debbie, his children, and all mourning his passing.”
Ted Darcus, who was president of city council when Smithgall became mayor, said Smithgall cared about people and “led by what the people wanted.”
According to Harris, Smithgall was very tight with city finances — he said Smithgall would pore over carbon-copies of receipts — but he also “was willing to spend on projects he thought were important.”
Though the new police station project started under Stork – she launched a site search committee – Smithgall secured the site and oversaw construction, Harris said. Smithgall also authorized spending $75 million to retrofit the city's Conestoga and Susquehanna water treatment plants to meet federal guidelines. Replacing the plants’ sand bed filtration systems with microfiltration saved the city the cost of building a new plant.
Open heart surgery
A personal issue that became a memorable moment in Smithgall's time as Lancaster mayor was his open-heart surgery.
On April 1, 2000, Smithgall underwent a scheduled cardiac test - a routine practice for him after 1988 heart attack - and doctors recommended immediate surgery.
Smithgall, then 54, underwent quadruple bypass surgery the same day. Richard Nissley, the public works director, filled in as interim mayor while Smithgall recovered.
The next day, customers at Smithgall's Pharmacy expressed their concern for the recuperating mayor, anxiously asking about his recovery and leaving cards and flowers for him at the pharmacy counter.
After a week in the hospital - the first two days in intensive care - Smithgall was released to go home on April 7.
And on April 12, he drew a round of applause when he paid a surprise visit to a city council meeting. Smithgall, looking frail and speaking in a low voice, spent about 15 minutes at the meeting.
He then returned home, where he resumed handling the "low-pressure" mayoral tasks that could be done over the phone.
Pharmacist, cannon collector
Smithgall operated Smithgall’s Pharmacy, located at 536 West Lemon St. in Lancaster city, since 1972. His father, George Smithgall, opened the pharmacy in 1916.
Smithgall started working there in 1957, when he was 12 years old. He was a soda jerk and stocked and dusted the shelves.
A second Smithgall Pharmacy at 714 Columbia Ave. closed in 2008. He had purchased the location in 1988 from the family of pharmacist Maurice Eby, who opened the business in 1924. Smithgall cited changes in insurance regulations as a major reason for closing.
Smithgall made headlines in 2018 after foiling a robbery attempt at the Lemon Street store. Shortly afterward, Smithgall was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
An antique artillery collector, Smithgall owned numerous authentic cannons, for which he opened the Smithgall Foundation Cannon Museum in 2019. In a 2015 interview, he said he didn’t keep count, but that his wife said he had 70 cannons.
“We had one cannon when we got married in 1972, and now we have over 100,” Debbie Smithgall said Tuesday. Whenever her husband learned of another cannon to acquire, he would say it was “the Underground Western Union,” she said.
The museum will stay in the foundation, and Debbie Smithgall will lead it, she said.
“I’m now the proud owner of a million cannons — whether I wanted them or not,” she joked.
She also joked that her husband’s artillery hobby made her an expert in “revenge spending,” noting that he bought her a Corvette and a diamond tennis bracelet over the years.
For 35 years, ending in 2015, Smithgall and friends provided the cannons fired at the climax of a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” at Long’s Park’s Independence Day celebration.
Smithgall provided some cannons for the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln” and the 1993 movie “Gettysburg,” for which he also served as a paid consultant.
Smithgall would host cannon shoots at his 143-acre farm in Drumore Township.
The Smithgalls celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary on Aug. 26, 1972. They met at the dentist's office where she worked and he was a patient. They got engaged in Debbie’s parent’s living room, she said.
Smithgall was the son of the late George and Catharine Smithgall. In addition to his wife he is survived by his daughter Allison Smithgall, wife of Jonathan Bruce Rutter, and grandsons Christopher Gehron and Carter Gehron.
Funeral arrangements were not finalized.