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Vol. 38, No. 5

Planning, reserve funds help Lancaster bar deal with a home ownership pitfall

by Robert J. Derocher

Sometimes, it pays to plan for an office move or a remodel—even when it’s not really in your plans. That’s what Executive Director Evelyn Albert and the Lancaster (Pa.) Bar Association are finding as they recover from a sudden office evacuation that temporarily left the bar's historic headquarters in disarray before a rescue plan took shape.

The problems began last summer with a small pile of red sand.

The bar’s headquarters, the former Orange Street Opera House in Lancaster, was built in 1895 and has served as the LBA’s home since 1992. The sand pile, spotted after a July rainstorm, appeared to be coming from the bar’s brick exterior, and that spelled potential trouble, Albert says. A consulting engineer soon determined that the building was in danger of immediate collapse, forcing Albert and her staff of five to leave with virtually no notice.

That’s when some prior emergency planning kicked in, allowing the bar to move forward.

The first part of the plan, which involved remote computer backup and operations, allowed Albert and her staff to conduct daily bar business from their homes. The second part of the plan, a healthy reserve fund, permitted the bar to find temporary office space and rent event locales while they looked into more permanent office plans.

Bar leadership was relieved to learn that the initial diagnosis of imminent collapse was a false alarm, but the very process of iinvestigating the issue had left the bar with another problem. “The inside was a mess,” Albert recalls. “They put a lot of holes in 120-year-old plaster to find what the problems were.”

That essentially left the bar with four options, she says: sell the building “as is” and find new space, repair the building and sell it, demolish the building and start over, or make repairs and move back in. After working with a forensic architect and considering the wishes of bar members, the bar opted to spend up to $750,000 on repairs and move back in. The funds will come from a mix of reserves and loans, Albert says, with hopes high that the rehabbed space will be ready this fall.

“They liked the building. They liked the way it provides space. It’s a matter of changing the efficiency of the operating systems,” says Albert, explaining the decision. “There is a strong emotional attachment by our membership to this building.”

While the overall layout isn’t changing much, she adds, the redone space will feature some more modern improvements, such as reliable wireless Internet service and up-to-date heating and ventilation.

Her advice to bars that own their own buildings?

“Unless you have a full-time maintenance staff, you need to have a management company help you take care of things,” Albert says. “And you better have a sense of humor.”