Audit Blasts Mountain Laurel

A state auditor has slammed officials’ decision to award Mountain Laurel Center for the Performing Arts a $15 million grant when there were alleged red flags regarding the project long before groundbreaking.

Pennsylvania State Auditor Jack Wagner’s 55-page report, three years in the making, accuses previous administrations of ignoring warnings about the center’s viability and allowing the facility to be built despite drastic changes including a large cut in the proposed seating capacity.

"Given the significant amount of taxpayer dollars invested in the grant program, it is troubling that the commonwealth chooses to play a minimal role in ensuring the success of these types of important grant projects," Wagner’s report said.

The report criticizes Gov. Ed Rendell, saying he should have recovered the grant money when the PAC was sold last year to Mountain Laurel Development Group – formed by private developers John Wolfington and J. Brian O’Neill. Under the deal, the company assumed nearly all of Mountain Laurel’s $23 million debt and will lease the space back to the not-for-profit for 50 years.

Wagner initiated the audit in 2004 after formal claims of mismanagement and misappropriation of funds were made by former board members and a former state representative. PAC officials allegedly padded fund-raising numbers to qualify for the $15 million grant that paid for the facility’s construction.

The $35 million facility, which includes the 5,500-capacity Tom Ridge Pavilion, opened in 2003 but quickly developed cash-flow problems. It reopened in 2005 but still didn’t reach attendance goals, leading to more canceled shows.

The project definitely didn’t achieve its initial projection of 350 performances during the first three years with an estimated $40.6 million in revenue.

The audit says the decision after the grant was approved to reduce amphitheatre seating from 5,000 to 2,500 made it difficult to attract top-name acts to the venue.

The audit said then-Gov. Tom Ridge approved the grant in 2001 even though there were unresolved issues, including how much debt was the responsibility of the Pike County Industrial and Commercial Development Authority.

"If these concerns had been properly addressed, the Governor’s Office may have concluded that Mountain Laurel could not financially sustain operations and meet the economic and cultural expectation of the grant," Wagner said.

Mountain Laurel CEO Richard Bryant said the audit hasn’t revealed anything new.

"This is a report on early history," Bryant said. "The news here for us is that it’s a new day."

That "new day" includes working with John Scher’s Metropolitan Talent on booking rock, pop, country and comedy for the venue. Concerts on the books through mid-July include Riders In The Sky, Steve Miller Band, Goo Goo Dolls, and Lifehouse.