Mountain Laurel pulled out of the fire

| 29 Sep 2011 | 08:17

    BUSHKILL - Mountain Laurel has been saved, not by politicians, but by the home builders. The financially troubled, non-profit Mountain Laurel Center for the Performing Arts on Monday announced completion of a long-anticipated transaction with the newly formed Mountain Laurel Development Group, led by developer and philanthropist John Wolfington. Under the terms of a ground lease agreement, Mountain Laurel Center’s 2,500-seat Tom Ridge Pavilion will become the centerpiece of a master-planned, mixed-use residential/commercial community that Wolfington will build on 2,225 acres, including the existing Tamiment subdivision and most of the old 675-acre Unity House Resort, which had been deeded for the arts center. Under the memorandum of lease, the non-profit organization will control the performing arts center and approximately 42 acres surrounding it for existing lawn seating, parking and support services at a cost of $1 per year for 29.5 years. “Our vision is that the Mountain Laurel Center for the Performing Arts will be the focal point of a vital, environmentally friendly community,” said Wolfington in the Monday announcement. “This is an enlightened move by all concerned,” said Richard T. Bryant, chief executive officer of the Mountain Laurel Center. “Once completed, the new commercial components of the development will lead right to the Tom Ridge Pavilion. Nothing could be better to help establish the type of performing arts destination we envision.” At the heart of the transaction was Wolfington’s purchase of the $17 million in outstanding bonds issued by the Pike County Commercial and Industrial Development Authority to help finance the construction of the Tom Ridge Pavilion. In exchange for payment of the bonds, and other considerations, the authority, with the concurrence of Pike County and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, transferred ownership of the ground to the developer, who in turn has leased the performing arts center facility back to the non-profit organization. Through this transaction, the center has eliminated more than $20 million of a total debt of some $23 million, including the bonds, much of the outstanding construction bill, and credit lines established during the construction period, all of which had seriously impeded operational success. “While some past obligations still remain,” said the center’s board chairman, Andrew Forte, “we are now confident that this community can and will address them as we get on with the very real work of establishing a major performing arts organization capable of operating for decades to come.” Attorney John “Duke” Schneider of Weinstein, Schneider, Kannebecker & Lokuta volunteered his Milford firm’s services to Bryant and the center board to assist them in finalizing this transaction. “For the majority of arts centers of this kind around the country, major developers become involved first,” Bryant said. “Here, the center for the arts was built first, some years before the development interests arrived. It didn’t work. Now, thanks to the arrival of John Wolfington and the continued cooperation and hard work of many, it is all coming together.” With the transaction complete, center officials said future plans for performances and education programs will be announced in six to eight weeks. Mountain Laurel is actually the fourth reincarnation of a project that concert violinist Elliott Rosoff and his associate Charles Samberg originally brought to the Sullivan County, N.Y. Board of Supervisors in 1995. With the collapse of a proposed purchase of a former hotel property in Sackett Lake, N.Y., the project, then dubbed the Pike County Performing Arts Center, moved to a proposed site in Shohola Township. Once again renamed as the Keystone Performing Arts Center, it next moved to Unity House, where efforts to gain county bonding support failed in 1999. The Mountain Laurel effort came with a subsequent reorganization of the project board of directors. In October 2001, then Governor Tom Ridge flew in to present a $15 million state contribution which prompted the October 2002 groundbreaking for the pavillion that bears his name. The center was to open for Memorial Day 2003, but delays were forerunners of continuing financial problems. The pavilion finally debuted in August 2003, but money troubles deepened. A prestigious summer home agreement with Pittsburgh Symphony was dropped and the center was forced to cancel most of its 2004 season. With unpaid creditors and the bondholder’s foreclosure imminent, sale of the facility to Wolfington’s Greystone Capital Partners was undertaken last year.