Audit At The Mountain

Pennsylvania state auditors are investigating whether officials with the cash-strapped Mountain Laurel Center for the Performing Arts padded fund-raising numbers to qualify for a $15 million state grant that paid for the facility’s construction two years ago.

Center officials were required to show the PAC had raised matching funds in the amount of $21.8 million in order to qualify for the grant. When auditors reviewed the grant application, they reportedly could only verify a local match of $16.8 million.

The discrepancy has led to some finger pointing between Mountain Laurel officials and the Pike County Industrial Development Authority, which owns the $35 million PAC, according to The Morning Call newspaper.

A former project manager told the paper that PAC officials inflated the amount of matching funds by $5 million to qualify for the grant.

The state agency started its investigation in 2004 after formal allegations of mismanagement and misappropriation of funds were made by former board members and a now-former state representative, according to the paper.

The investigation is said to be in its final stages.

The PAC, which includes the 10,000-capacity Tom Ridge Pavilion, opened in 2003 but developed cash-flow problems shortly after. Current Mountain Laurel CEO Richard Bryant was brought in last year to work with the board and turn things around.

The venue reopened in June with the help of about $500,000 from the state and a promise of $750,000 annually in county hotel tax revenue. The season was marred by low attendance, and three shows were canceled due to poor ticket sales.

Meanwhile, the Mountain Laurel Development Group — formed by developers John Wolfington of Greystone Capital Partners and J. Brian O’Neill of O’Neill Properties — is negotiating to buy land near the arts center in a deal that will help the facility stay open.

The tentative plan is to subdivide the property and build a residential retirement community and another attraction to complement the PAC. In return, the company agrees to pick up nearly all of Mountain Laurel’s $23 million debt and lease the performance space back to the not-for-profit organization that is to run the venue for 50 years.

The development group has already given the arts center $250,000 and paid about $600,000 to bondholders in September.

Bryant was not available for comment at press time.