Mike Driscoll, co-owner of Northern Liberties bar Finnigan’s Wake, withdrew a request last week for $74,000 from The Penn Treaty Special Services District. He withdrew the request after news spread that the board had planned to provide the grant to the bar’s owners.
The funding - which will now not be delivered, as Driscoll withdrew the request July 6 – was presented at a PTSSD meeting last month as a “community beautification project,” according to Kevin Kelly, processing director of the PTSSD.
Many locals, though, had expressed concerns that the funds would help afford the bar and nightclub’s outdoor expansion plan—a plan that many neighbors opposed.
“I’ve never seen people so upset about something in the Northern Liberties, ever,” said Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. He said more than 450 people sent emails opposing the plan during an online campaign.
For months, members of the NLNA and owners of Finnigan’s Wake have been going back and forth over a plan for a two-story balcony on the front of the bar that would hang over the sidewalk along Spring Garden Street, as well as an outdoor patio on Bodine Street.
As part of the plan, Bodine Street would also be stricken from city maps to allow the bar to own the street and place seating outside along with an easement for pedestrians. The street would also be owned by the bar’s neighbors at the Joe Hand boxing gym and the Democratic City Committee.
According to Ruben, the original plan discussed last year would have seen the balconies placed over Bodine Street.
As the plan evolved, however, the balconies were moved to hang over Spring Garden Street, while Bodine Street would be used for the outdoor patio.
Ruben said that after these alterations, some neighborhood residents began to warm up to the plan, as it was also to include an open walkway for pedestrians, a bike path and landscaping to the area.
“There was still opposition to the street removal [of Bodine], but it wasn’t unanimous anymore,” Ruben said. Kelly said that the PTSSD board approved the request believing that Bodine Street would remain a public street and Finnigan’s Wake would use the funding to clean and green the area as a benefit to the public.
“That’s been an eyesore forever,” he said of Bodine Street, which is often blocked by a dumpster owned by Finnigan’s Wake. “We saw this as an opportunity to make it nice and beautify it.”
Kelly said that “as it stands [Bodine Street] is a public thoroughfare,” which is true at the moment.
That could soon change, as City Council recently passed two bills, both related to Finnigan’s Bodine Street and balcony projects.
Those bills have been approved by City Council, but have yet to be signed by Mayor Michael Nutter.
But, if signed, Bodine Street would be stricken from the city maps, meaning it wouldn’t be a public thoroughfare.
“When it subsequently came to light that now, well…if it’s private property, we’re not going to fund it,” Kelly said. “When they came to us originally, it was still public property.”
On its website at www.penntreatyssd.com, the board notes that Finnigan’s Wake never got funding and has withdrawn the request.
“We don’t like to get involved with private business,” said Kelly. “We said, ‘we can’t fund that,’… We aren’t too proud to say, ‘Hey, things have changed and now we’re going to not do it.’”
He said the board was always willing to work with a private business in an extraneous circumstance if – as in the case of the Spirit community newspaper, which got a PTSSD grant of over $20,000 - the board felt there was enough of a community benefit involved.
As of press time, Driscoll had not returned calls or emails to discuss the plan.
Maggie O’Brien, president of Fishtown Action, who helped outline and create the PTSSD through creating a Community Benefits Agreement with Sugarhouse casino, said that she didn’t think the board should have contemplated delivering funds to Finnigan’s Wake in the first place.
“That [PTSSD funding] is meant for the benefit of the community, not for Finnigan’s Wake,” she said. “He [Driscoll] has a lot of nerve asking for any of it. Why should the CBA money be used to improve his property? Even if he wasn’t taking over that street, I think it’s his responsibility to take care of that as a good neighbor.”
Northern Liberties resident Chris Somers gave this issue something of a life of its own online, thanks to a post on his blog at blog.thesomersteam.com. He said he only hoped to share the issue in order to allow residents to be aware of how this funding was being spent.
“I really just wanted to raise awareness,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem like a good decision to give money to a for-profit company, especially one that could easily afford this [project] by itself.”
If the funding had gone to Finnigan’s Wake, it would have been the second largest grant awarded by the PTSSD, a 501 c3 non-profit organization which has a service district that includes Fishtown, Northern Liberties and parts of Kensington.
The PTSSD board currently receives an annual stipend of about $500,000 from Sugarhouse casino.
Once the casino has completed its full-construction, the board is expected to receive $1 million a year.
“These aren’t public dollars,” said Kelly, of the PTSSD’s funding. “The SSD doesn’t receive public dollars. These are private dollars and we can fund whatever we want. We choose not to fund private companies.”
So far, the board has received three payments from the casino totaling over $1 million and has delivered over $820,000 in grants.
The board meets monthly to disperse grants and is currently on break until September.