Erie Bayfront Convention Center
MacDonald Illig Jones & Britton LLP is proud to have served as special counsel to the Erie County Convention Center Authority in helping bring to fruition the City of Erie's $115 million Bayfront Convention Center and host hotel, the Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel. These state-of-the-art convention and conference facilities—a decade in the making—represent the culmination of the largest public project in the history of northwestern Pennsylvania. And throughout the process, MacDonald Illig attorneys were there to provide the acumen required to address the multi-faceted, complex legal issues attendant to a project of this magnitude.
From drafting state legislation that facilitated funding and operation, to land procurement, negotiation of construction and labor contracts, litigation and appeals, nearly every practice group at MacDonald Illig played a part in shepherding this signal project from a dream, to the drawing board, and ultimately realization.
The project started more than 10 years ago, when political and business leaders of Erie County recognized the need for a facility that would add significant revenue to the local economy and boost Erie's nationwide tourist and convention presence. The result is a convention center that boasts 145,000 square feet and northwestern Pennsylvania's largest banquet venue. Within five months of opening its doors in 2007, more than 145 events attracting over 62,000 guests were booked. These events include conventions, corporate meetings, expositions, conferences, weddings and large banquets. Among the highlights was the 2008 General Electric Company annual shareholders' meeting, the Pennsylvania State District Attorney's Convention and regional meetings of PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Ford Motor Company. The Sheraton, a Starwood Hotels & Resorts property, adds to the convention center's appeal, providing Erie's first waterfront hotel, featuring 200 non-smoking rooms, 5,800 square feet of meeting space—all connected via skywalk to the convention center.
The project has exceeded the expectations first proffered to then-Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge in 2000. A MacDonald Illig partner was among those participating in the initial presentation of the convention center-hotel to the governor. In 2009, the project was named a winner of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC)/AON Build America Award. The Bayfront Convention Center & Hotel Complex is one of just 13 construction projects “recognized for complexity, innovation, success and ultimately, for their significance to the construction community and the nation at large.” AGC is the largest and oldest national construction trade association in the United States.
At the project's inception, MacDonald Illig was called upon to provide the Convention Center steering committee with legal counsel in structuring and presenting a development proposal to city, county and state officials. The firm's business and transactional, municipal and government, public finance and real estate attorneys worked on drafting the proposal. The proposal addressed the creation of a convention center authority that would construct and operate the planned facility, and provide for procurement of local and state funding. The new Erie County Convention Center Authority would assume responsibility for three existing regional assets: the Jerry Uht Park, home to the Erie SeaWolves, AA-Affiliate of the Detroit Tigers; the Louis J. Tullio Arena, home to the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League; and the historic Warner Theater, opened in 1931 and venue to the Erie Philharmonic and Broadway shows.
Upon approval of the convention center and hotel—gained after spirited and intense public debate—MacDonald Illig attorneys drafted the Third Class County Convention Center Authority Act (Alternative Provision). Enacted by the Pennsylvania Legislature in October 2000, the Act provided the legal framework under which the Authority would construct and operate the new convention center and receive ongoing funding for its facilities through revenues derived from a 5 percent hotel/motel tax.
Following the legislation's enactment, Gov. Ridge and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in April 2001 provided the necessary initial funding to the Convention Center Authority. Despite the anticipated success of the proposed facilities, all did not go smoothly in bringing them into being. Among the difficulties encountered was strong opposition to the hotel/motel tax as provided for in the Act. In June 2005, before construction began, a group of Erie County hoteliers filed a lawsuit against the Authority. MacDonald Illig commercial litigators successfully defended the Authority at trial. That verdict was upheld following unsuccessful appeals by the hoteliers.
Beginning in 2000 through today, MacDonald Illig continues to handle numerous transactional and litigation-related matters for the Authority, including participation by attorneys in municipal/governmental, public finance, construction, real estate, labor, environmental and the commercial litigation practice groups. Representative matters include:
- A development agreement between the Authority and a private firm specializing in convention center development;
- A project labor agreement between the Authority and Great Lakes Building and Construction Trades Council;
- Construction contracts and general conditions for both the Convention Center and the Sheraton;
- Grant agreements with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania;
- Contracts for the assembly and acquisition of the real estate parcels that combined to form the hotel site;
- A long-term ground lease for the convention center site;
- A comprehensive five-party agreement by and among the Authority, a private party and various governmental agencies providing for 1) the re-subdivision of several contiguous parcels of land; 2) the exchange of certain parcels among the parties; and 3) the orderly staging of construction activities on and adjacent to the various affected parcels;
- Agreements with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania outlining the procurement of state-owned lands adjacent to the project site; and
- An asset management agreement between the Authority and the operator of the Sheraton.
Beyond the varied contract work necessary to complete the project, MacDonald Illig was called upon to:
- Resolve zoning attacks on the project;
- Appear before Erie City Council, Erie County Council, the City of Erie Zoning Hearing Board, the City of Erie Design Review Committee and the City of Erie Planning Commission with respect to various governmental and agency approvals;
- Serve as Authority counsel in connection with the issuance of over $45 million of tax-exempt revenue bonds to finance the hotel's construction;
- Create a procurement handbook containing the bidding procedures applicable to the Authority's public projects;
- Serve as Authority counsel on matters pertaining to bid requirements for public construction projects, including handling contractor compliance, bid awards and bid withdrawals; and
- Handle environmental issues surrounding the project.
MacDonald Illig is pleased to have so many of the firm's attorneys and practice groups play an integral role in the creation of the convention center and hotel complex. The Bayfront Convention Center and Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel are great assets to northwestern Pennsylvania and surrounding major markets in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo, New York; and Ontario, Canada. For Erie, it is a symbol of revitalization and enterprise for the corporate and civic communities. For MacDonald Illig clients, it is a reminder of the depth and sophistication that has been a hallmark of the firm and its capabilities for more than a century.