York City mayor, council president clash over Penn Market

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch
From right, Steve Hill and Katie, both of Manchester Township, walk with their bags of fresh produce and meat while Jami Godfrey, of R.L. Godfrey looks on at Penn Market in York City, Friday, Dec. 22, 2018. Nana's Oven has been in Penn Market since March of 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York City Council President Henry Nixon said Mayor Michael Helfrich's signature is the only thing missing to kick the Penn Market renovation project in gear. But the mayor cites a different holdup — money.

Nearly a year after the York City Redevelopment Authority Board chose an engineering and architecture firm for the renovation process city officials promised years ago, the project appears halted.

"I am very frustrated by the process, and very disappointed, that from at least my understanding, the mayor is not signing the contract with Buchart Horn to move this process forward," Nixon said.

But Helfrich countered that there is no plan yet to move forward with. 

"People got the cart before the horse. You're contracting for engineering, well what are you engineering exactly? To my knowledge neither the RDA nor the City of York have a final vision of where this is going," he said.

The York City Redevelopment Authority Board chose Buchart Horn last summer following a request for proposals to renovate the 152-year-old market. Since then, little progress has been made. 

The money 'isn't there': The quasi-government board bought the 23,000-square-foot market, 382 W. Market St., in June 2017 with city officials promising to revive it as part of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar commitment. The support for the project was declared under former Mayor Kim Bracey's administration.

"The same people that announced that can't tell you where the money is coming from," Helfrich said. "I'm the one who has to figure that out, and I can tell you it is not there."

Owner Deb Volker, of Nana's Oven, shapes vegan loaves of multigrain, multiseeded bread at Penn Market in York City, Friday, Dec. 28, 2018. Nana's Oven has been in Penn Market since March of 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Helfrich said the city is looking for grants to fund the project but also said the search is premature, as there is no plan yet in place. 

The contract Nixon alleges Helfrich has yet to sign is precisely what would allow the city to develop that plan, the council president said. 

"The RDA could go out for grants, and right now we don't know what the exact costs are. We don't have a plan, and Buchart Horn would be responsible for giving us that plan. And the contract is laying on the mayor's desk," Nixon said. 

More:Construction set to begin at York City's Penn Market in 2019

More:York City Council passes $108M budget adding funding for Penn Market

During the 2019 budget approval process, Helfrich stressed the city's constrained financial state because of rising health care and pension costs. The City Council ultimately passed the $108 million budget with an amendment adding about $75,000 for Penn Market.

Those funds are intended to go forward with Buchart Horn's engineering study.

"It needs to get started," said Councilman Michael Buckingham. "This is just the initial stages, determining what can be done, and I think it can be a tremendous community resource."

Helfrich said the money put aside for the market is "theoretical money," adding that there wasn't revenue designated to fund it. 

"But again, that's for an engineering study that has no vision. I mean what are you engineering exactly?" Helfrich said. 

Penn Market in York City, Friday, Dec. 28, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"The fact is, I'm not dumping million of dollars of taxpayer money into the Penn Street market," he said. 

'Circumstances got in the way': In December, Christian Wagman, a liaison between York City and the Redevelopment Authority Board, told The York Dispatch construction would begin near the end of 2019. He also confirmed that all taxes owed by Penn Market had been paid off since the RDA took control.

That date might be pushed further back, said RDA President Michael Black. Although, he "wouldn't rule anything out" at this point.

"It wasn't intended to be this long; circumstances got in the way," Black said.

Black hopes to see "at least some progress" in 2019. 

"It's a priority for this year to get something, at least some progress, in Penn Market," Black added. 

The Penn Market building is tax-exempt, as it's still owned by the RDA. Without proceeding, the city receives no benefit from it, Nixon said. 

"This is a loss all the way around by not moving forward," he said. 

Danielle Stehman, of Buchart Horn gives a  public presentation on the Codorus Creek Beautification Initiative at Penn Market in York City, Thursday, April 25, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Modern market: Buchart Horn project architect Danielle Stehman said she has personal ties to Penn Market and wants to execute a renovation that keeps its spirit alive. She fears that with budgetary concerns, the city might ultimately end up with a completely different business at the location, she said.

Although, it seems officials are committed to keeping a market in the space at this time. Based on the request for proposal, the RDA is looking to create a modern, energy-efficient market that maintains its historical character. The aim also is to keep a portion of the market open during construction, based on the proposal request.

More:Has York City's initiative been effective in curbing gun violence?

More:'Lofty but tangible': Public weighs in on Codorus Creek renovation

More:York City seeks economic, community development director — again

The neighborhood market is necessary in the area, which is basically a food desert, Nixon said. 

"I remember my wife used to shop there many, many years ago when we moved into that area. We only had one car, so she was able to walk there and buy groceries, buy meats and vegetables, while I worked and I was out of town," he said. "I would venture to say there are many more that go there, that walk there, to buy groceries." 

— Rebecca Klar can be reached at rklar@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter @RebeccaKlar_.