Boscov aid plan appears back on target

Shoppers at a Boscov's. Most communities helped because saving the department store was vital to their economies.
Shoppers at a Boscov's. Most communities helped because saving the department store was vital to their economies.
Posted: February 13, 2009

Perhaps it was a byproduct of what one politician referred to as "bailout syndrome." But delays and resistance that had threatened to derail the Boscov's department store chain's efforts to secure nearly $50 million in public aid appear to have been largely overcome.

Politicians in several Pennsylvania zip codes this week threw their support to a plan introduced in November by Gov. Rendell to provide the Reading retailer with $47 million in loan guarantees to help it recover from bankruptcy.

Commissioners in Butler County on Monday approved Boscov's request for a $5.83 million loan guarantee, meaning that six Keystone State counties have now agreed to provide $35 million in guarantees to the 97-year-old company, which employed 5,000 people in Pennsylvania in November but has trimmed its ranks through cost-cutting to about 4,500.

Officials in Scranton introduced a measure Tuesday and were poised to approve it next week to add $3 million to the tally. Wilkes-Barre already has said yes to $3 million, and a further $5.7 million is being considered by Atlantic County ($3 million) and Vineland, N.J. ($2.7 million).

The roughly $47 million would come in the form of guarantees on loans to Boscov from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - loans not yet approved by federal authorities. They are an essential component in a $300 million bid by the Boscov family in December to buy the 39-store chain out of bankruptcy.

Resistance and confusion about the program had dominated over the last few months, with one county refusing to go along.

But painstaking discussion between legal counsel and state officials, buttressed by in-person testimony at commissioner and council hearings by none other than 79-year-old company patriarch Al Boscov, helped untangle things.

"I was so happy he came up," said Linda Aebli, executive director of the Office of Economic and Community Development in Scranton, where Boscov helped build the downtown mall two decades ago anchored by his store. "Standing in front of the public, standing in front of the council, they saw that he's really promoting this, he cares."

Scranton is eager to help Boscov because a shutdown could seriously affect a $20 million downtown redevelopment a block away and around the corner, Aebli said.

In Wilkes-Barre, where Boscov's is considered another critical magnet to downtown traffic, similar dire outcomes are feared.

"Wilkes-Barre right now is in the process of being redeveloped," said Mayor Tom Leighton. "To lose Mr. Boscov's five-story department store would be devastating."

Boscov said he was eager to appear at these meetings and say that his company's profits in December were higher than expected and that Boscov's is positioned to survive for the long haul.

"I think if you're asking a community to help you, you offer them the respect back of being there to answer their questions," Boscov said. "I don't think you allow a stranger to do what you're asking for."

Under the federal program, certain cities and counties are eligible to apply to HUD for low-interest loans that they then pass on to, say, developers or businesses in the name of economic revitalization. A major goal is job creation.

Those cities and counties agree to cover the potential recipient - in this case Boscov's - if it goes into default on the loan. They pledge to pay off the loan by dipping into their own HUD grants.

This seemed too great a risk - and contrary to the economic philosophy of the commissioners - in the one rural county that flatly refused to go along with the Boscov request: Snyder County.

"If we go down the road of subsidizing loans for businesses, where do we draw the line for the next one?" said Snyder Commissioner and Board Chairman Joseph E. Kantz.

Snyder County was considering a request in December, when U.S. automakers were seeking federal loans and public sentiment was raw.

"I don't know what I would have done if it was at another point in time, if we weren't in a bailout syndrome," Kantz said.

But in a 2-1 vote, Kantz and his fellow Republican on the board squelched the request, despite Boscov's appearance. Even though his county of just 38,000 has lost many jobs because of the economy, it seemed too risky, Kantz said.

Rendell and the state Department of Community and Economic Development overcame concerns in other communities, in part, by promising that the state would assume full responsibility for paying off the Boscov's loan in the event of a default. They said the commonwealth would dip into its own reserve of HUD grants to do so, if need be.

Also, Boscov's agreed to make Pennsylvania second in line behind its major lenders to collect on collateral that includes massive real estate and inventory holdings - collateral that the state said was sufficient to make it whole.

The remaining six counties - Blair, Butler, Cambria, Lebanon, Schuylkill and Lackawanna - agreed to kick in an extra $830,000 each to help cover for Snyder County's withdrawal.

"It takes an enormous amount of courage on the part of local governments to make these decisions," said John Blake, executive deputy secretary of DCED, who is working closely with the counties and cities involved.

He said the administration felt "extraordinary gratitude" toward the county commissioners who approved the assistance.

"It's political courage," Blake said, "because we're in the midst of a bailout environment, and this was perceived to be a bailout, but it is not. It is a loan that will be amortized. And it will protect our towns."

Boscov's Benefactors

County and municipal governments have pledged $46.68 million to help save the Boscov's store chain.


County                Store location                Amount

Blair                      Altoona                $5.83 million

Butler                      Butler                5.83 million

Cambria                Johnstown             5.83 million

Lebanon                   Lebanon             5.83 million

Schuylkill                Pottsville             5.83 million

Lackawanna             Scranton             5.83 million


Scranton*                                     3 million

Wilkes-Barre                                  3 million

New Jersey


Atlantic*                Atlantic City             3 million


Vineland*                                     2.7 million

Total                                        $46.68 million


SOURCE: Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development

Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or

comments powered by Disqus