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Reading City Council asked to step up release of American Rescue Plan dollars

Reading is starting to spend the $61 million it received from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan.

City Council will vote in a couple weeks to officially to give $3 million to the Santander Arena and Santander Performing Arts Center.

In July, council passed a resolution stating it supported giving the money to the venues, but for the funds to officially go into the venue’s pockets, an ordinance must be passed.

Officials from the Berks County Convention Center Authority, the organization that oversees the venues, met with council Tuesday night and asked them to expedite the funds.

“When we were before you a few weeks ago and the $3 million was approved, we thought the money was in route,” said Michael Gombar Jr., vice chairman of the Berks County Convention Authority board.

One of the reasons the money is needed sooner rather than later, is that the Reading Royals home opener is Oct. 23 and Santander Arena’s ice making equipment needs to be replaced at a cost of $1.25 million.

“We did make a commitment on the ice plant,” Gombar said. “Which is sorely needed — probably on borrowed time at this point.”

Gombar added that the board is asking for the full $3 million now, instead of only $1.25 million for the ice plant, so council does not have to approve a second ordinance releasing the rest of the funds.

Managing Director Abraham Amoros said Mayor Eddie Moran, who was not present at Monday’s meeting, approved of the request.

Amoros added the funds would come out of the American Rescue Plan and not the city’s general fund or capital expenses.

“He (Moran) feels they could use the money right away to prepare for the season,” Amoros said. “The need is definitely there.”

The convention center board also asked the Berks County commissioners to contribute $3 million to the venues. The commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of it, but they too have not officially given the money to the convention center board.

Board member Michael Ehlerman told council there is a plan and that the board wants to focus on capital expenses.

Previously, the convention center board told council it planned to spend $4 million to address normal wear and tear from operating the venues and devote $2 million to enhancements.

“We felt it was appropriate for improving the facilities,” Ehlerman said. “There are a series of things in that. Some of its sound systems, some of its lighting, some of it is signage, some of it is a little fancy but it is state of the art.”

Gombar added that the upgrades are needed so Reading can compete with towns like Allentown and Hershey to attract national acts.

‘A little trouble’

Board member Michael Fiucci said some of the upgrades would use green technology.

“Our ice plant is going to go away from freon and we are going to go to CO2,” he said. “The lighting will be upgraded to LEDs. It will be a lot more efficient at the ice plant and lighting.”

Council Vice President Lucine Sihelnik thought it made sense for the city to help the entertainment venues.

“In your industry and what we have as a gem in our downtown, I think, it is critical to have the sound systems and other state-of-the-art equipment,” she said.

The reason the board would use a bulk of the funds coming from the city for capital expenses, Ehlerman said, is because the board has other obligations.

“It allows us to continue to make other expense payments that we have gotten into a little trouble with,” he said

PNC Bank delayed two principal payments totaling $1.3 million and the board has to repay those Jan. 1, 2022, and has to be repaid within three years, Ehlerman said.

“To the degree we have funds available from another source toward (capital expenses), it makes it much easier to meet those principal payments,” Ehlerman said.

Officials previously said the venues lost $6.2 million in revenue over the past 18 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Fightins’ part

Council voted at the beginning of July to give $3 million to the Reading Fightin Phils for upgrades to the stadium or potentially risk losing the team to another city.

The team needs to upgrade the stadium to meet Major League Baseball’s new standards. If it does not, the MLB could pull the team’s license and another town could get it.

The Fightins have agreed to kick in $3 million as did Berks County toward the $15 million in renovations.

The baseball team also applied for a state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program seeking $7.5 million in funds. The state has not determined how much the team will receive.

However, the Fightins are in the same position as the convention center board: Council supports allocating the money, but it has yet to release the funds.

There has been no discussion on when council would release the funds to the Fightins.


Source: Berkshire mont

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