FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading

READING, Pa. — The Berks County commissioners voted Thursday to allocate $6 million to the Reading Fightin Phils and to the Berks County Convention Center Authority to assist both with the negative financial impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. Each will receive $3 million.

The allocations will use money from the American Rescue Plan, the most recent federal stimulus package, providing the uses meet the eligibility requirements for the use of the funds as determined by the United States Treasury.

The county is receiving $81.6 million from the American Rescue Plan.

The funds will be released to both entities upon receipt and successful review of the information provided by the R-Phils and the convention center authority.

Commissioner Kevin S. Barnhardt, while not objecting to the actual allocations, said he was withholding his support of the funds going to the convention center authority because he felt the city of Reading should do the same.

"I wanted to see monies forthcoming from the city's allocation of rescue money," Barnhardt said. "While I am fully supportive of the Fightin Phils stadium, I haven't seen any effort [from the city] on behalf of the convention center. I am withholding my support for that contingent on hearing something [from the city]."

Barnhardt said the convention center authority, which supports the Santander Arena and the Santander Performing Arts Center, is a joint effort between the county and the city.

"I have a feeling that they (the city) do get material benefits, as they receive an amusement tax from both entities," Barnhardt said. "If we are partners in this, then we need to be partners through and through."

The Reading City Council voted Monday to contribute $3 million to the Reading Fightin Phils for Major League Baseball-required upgrades at the city-owned FirstEnergy Stadium, but it was not specific in saying the funds would come from the American Rescue Plan.

The city is receiving $63 million from the package.

Major League Baseball is requiring that improvements to FirstEnergy Stadium be completed by opening day in 2023 so that it will meet a set of standards established for minor league ballparks.

The upgrades will include larger locker rooms and weight rooms.

If those improvements are not made, the Fightin Phils could lose their license as an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, and the team could be forced to move to another location where a stadium already meets the current standards.

While the city allocation was specific to the improvements project, the county allocation was not, but the commissioners had previously said they would contribute $3 million to the renovations.

Scott Hunsicker, the Fightins' general manager, attended the commissioners' virtual meeting Thursday.

"We greatly appreciate it (the allocation)," Hunsicker said. "We are looking forward to building back our business and our involvement in the community."

The county will ultimately have to approve the Fightin Phils' intended use of the funds, based on federal guidelines.

The R-Phils have also submitted a request for a state grant in order to come up with the $15-$16 million that it will cost to make the improvements to the stadium.

Other business

The commissioners voted to approve amending the guidelines for public participation at public meetings to require that comments address specific agenda items or topics that could directly involve the county or the commissioners.

Three residents raised objections to the action.

City resident Celine Schrier said she fears the adoption of revised rules will lead to the limitation of free speech.

"These meetings are a forum for the public to engage and share concerns with public officials," Schrier said. "These concerns are germane and important to be added to public records. No citizen should have their speech censored by someone who works with the commissioners."

Commissioner Christian Y. Leinbach said he wanted to make it very clear that the only thing the amendment is doing is making sure comments deal with issues that could come before the county commissioners.

"I appreciate the comments," Leinbach said. "I believe this is very well thought out and will make sure we are focused on county business instead of something outside of the purview of the county."

For months, the commissioners have been routinely hearing at least one public comment per meeting on the topic of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

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