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Source: Springfield Sun
Date: January 7, 2009
Byline: Nick Malinowski

Montgomery Newspapers - Black Horse renovation stalls as funding is sought

Preliminary survey shows little interest in further constributions

With exterior work complete, renovations at the Black Horse Inn remain in a holding pattern as the township assesses funding options for the rest of the project.

Township Manager Don Berger said in an interview Dec. 18 that it will cost $1.1 million to complete the rehabilitation, but an additional $500,000 is being sought to pay back funds advanced by the township.

To date $1,587,000 has been spent on the restoration effort, with $862,000 coming from the township, $606,000 from outside grants and $54,000 from other local contributions, Berger said.

As part of its $862,000 contribution, the township initially spent $285,000 on the building, for legal fees involved in the property's acquisition and subdivision, and for safety improvements including repairs to the roof and chimney, Berger said.

Additional money has been spent since with the idea that they will eventually be reimbursed through the ongoing fundraising efforts, he said.

Further funding is available from the state through a $500,000 redevelopment grant, which would require a matching contribution.

At its November business meeting, the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners agreed that the match for that grant should come exclusively from fundraising rather than through further financial advances by the township, though they also narrowly defeated a resolution that would have eliminated the further use of township tax dollars toward the rehabilitation of the inn.

That motion, brought by Commissioners Glenn Schaum and Robert Gillies, was struck down 3-4 with Commissioners Doug Heller, Alison Peirce, Baird Standish and President Jeff Harbison opposing.

In October, the township hired consultant Edward Swenson, of Edward F. Swenson and Associates, Philadelphia, to conduct a fundraising feasibility study that remains ongoing.

Although Swenson declined to be interviewed for this article, Berger said the consultant provided a preliminary report to the Black Horse Inn Advisory Committee that indicated there would be some difficulty in raising the $1.6 million.

Swenson will meet with the committee again this month, Berger said.

Commissioner Baird Standish, liaison between the board and the advisory committee, said Jan. 2 that Swenson's preliminary efforts did not necessarily represent a consensus on the community's interest in making donations toward the project.

"When we met with him, they had only met with nine people," Standish said. "The first part of the fundraising effort is not going out and soliciting money from people. All we are really doing is interviewing people and testing the waters and seeing how we are going to go about doing this."

Standish acknowledged that the nine people interviewed had a "lukewarm response for various reasons."

"One reason is a misconception of what's really going on," he said. Because the outside of the building looks so good, many people are not aware of the extent of renovations required in the building's interior, Standish said.

In an interview Dec. 31, Commissioner Doug Heller said it may have been a "strategic mistake" to complete the renovation of the building's exterior prior to working on the inside.

Standish also said there are misconceptions about the future use of the building and that some residents are concerned that, for example, a bank will occupy the space.

The board of commissioners is committed to bringing an organization that offers something back to the community in as a tenant, he said.

"I think it's going to involve some further education as to what is going on in the Black Horse," Standish said.

If the $1.6 million cannot be raised in full, the board of commissioners will have to come up with a solution, Black Horse Inn Advisory Committee Chairman James Mascaro said in an interview Dec. 23.

Because the building is safe and has been stabilized, it could remain as it is, with the interior unfinished, for some time, Mascaro said.

Other options would include adding rehabilitation costs into the rent or reaching an agreement with a potential tenant where they would assume some of the cost of the renovations, Mascaro said.

"I think I speak for the board [in that] we all want the inn to be completed and occupied and generating revenue," Heller said. "The challenge is how do we get from here to there."

The board of commissioners is not likely to make any further decisions on the property until Swenson completes his feasibility study, Heller said, but Standish indicated that the next step would be looking at organizations that would want to move into the building.

"Those who fear that this inn is not an attractive location are wrong, we've received a lot of inquiries about occupying it," Heller said.

One limiting aspect of the property, from a tenant's point of view, is that there are only five or six parking spaces, which would be prohibitive to a retail shop and makes the property most conducive for a passive use such as an insurance company or a nonprofit organization, Heller said.

The Springfield Township Historical Society would be willing to move in first, and would be a perfect candidate for the space, but would also likely receive a subsidized rent, Mascaro said.

Mascaro said he remained optimistic that the fundraising goals would be met but added that the group has never had any time table established for the completion of the renovation.

"We always felt that we would have the hook of a big grant that said if you raise 'X' dollars we will match it," he said. "None of us on the committee thought it was going to be easy. The downturn in the economy isn't helping anything."

"As a township, we have to have a commitment to this inn," Heller said. "The presence of the inn on Bethlehem Pike will, over time, allow a revitalization of the pike from a business perspective that will be very good for township and the quality of life for the people in the township. If you visualize the pike and remove the inn and put in a parking lot we will have destroyed the historical center of this town."