OARC, Evans take fire for economic strategy

Two complaints have surfaced recently that State Rep. Dwight Evans used his access to public funds to strong-arm local entrepreneurs.

The knocks on Evans (D., Phila.) come just as he has lost considerable clout, with the vote by his fellow Democrats in Harrisburg to remove him as ranking Democrat from the House committee that controls the flow of state funds.

Both complaints paint the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation, a well-funded West Oak Lane development corporation with tight ties to Evans, as the primary tool for Evans’ will, and its executive director, Jack Kitchen, as the enforcer.

Earlier this month, a Germantown couple, Raymond and Rosalind Wood, organizers of the John Coltrane, or “Tranestop,” jazz festival, claimed Kitchen and OARC torpedoed their yearly concert this year on orders from Evans, because of jealousy over the Tranestop’s success. Evans channels state funds each year to the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival.

“He crushes, or attempts to crush any kind of economic development that he is not into,” Raymond Wood said. “I really call it racism when he is using his political power to prevent development… because I don’t know how you take a black developer and try to put him out of business.”

Both Evans and Wood are black.

Evans could not be reached for comment, but his spokesperson Kim Turner said Wood was way off.

“That’s just not who Dwight is,” she said. “It’s never been Dwight’s style. Dwight has always been about collaboration, whether it’s in the Northwest or all parts of the city.”

Wood and his wife held a news conference in Germantown to detail their version of the story.  Wood described OARC as a traffic cop directing the flow of state money to multiple House districts beyond Evan’s home district, the 203rd.

Wood said State Rep. John Myers (D., Phila.) asked him in 2006 to create a “signature event” for Germantown.  That led to Tranestop, a September event held at Awbury Arboretum, in Myers’ district.

For the first two years, Wood said, OARC donated “less than $50,000” to the event, at Myers’ request. In the third year, he said, Kitchen offered to make OARC the major sponsor at $70 to $80,000.  Wood claimed that, after stringing him along for months, at the last minute Kitchen withdrew all the funding, which caused Tranestop to fold.

It was a calculated plan to eliminate the Tranestop, Wood said, because OARC didn’t like seeing a successful, less costly jazz festival so close to its own West Oak Lane Jazz Festival.  The West Oak Lane event used $1 million in state funds this summer but drew disappointing crowds, according to an Inquirer article about the festival.

But Jack Kitchen doesn’t remember any of it that way, including low numbers at the West Oak Lane festival. He said it’s true that OARC did not fund the Tranestop this year, but that it wasn’t a last minute decision, and it certainly didn’t involve reneging on a promise of $80,000. To Kitchen, backing out of Tranestop – a festival he says he loves – was a must because Wood wasn’t being honest about the numbers.

Wood came to OARC asking for $80,000, Kitchen said, a request that OARC be the main sponson of the event. And at the same time he went to John Myers asking for at least $10,000 less to do the same thing, according to Kitchen. All the while, Kitchen said, he could not get a clear picture of how much money other sponsors would be contributing, or whether there were any other sponsors at all.

“We were ready willing and able to do $10,000,” Kitchen said, the same amount OARC had kicked in the previous two years, according to him. “The problem was, when I started talking to John Myers’ office I found out that Ray Woods was shopping two budgets around.”

It’s a claim that Stephen Kinsey, the chief of staff for Myers confirmed. “That’s really when we backed out,” Kinsey said.

To both men it was the final straw in a loss of confidence in Wood’s project. And with all the scrutiny an organization like OARC gets, Kitchen said, he couldn’t afford to invest in a project that didn’t appear transparent about its funds.

Wood isn’t the only local businessman with an axe to grind against OARC.

In June, Kevin Travick, the former owner of a West Oak Lane restaurant now called Relish and run in connection with OARC, filed a civil suit claiming Kitchen ran him out of the business so that OARC could take control.

The lawsuit claims the Kitchen/OARC/Evans team delayed a promised liquor license, even as the business was hemorrhaging money without revenue from selling drinks, until Travick signed over controlling interest in the restaurant. The lawsuit also claimed Kitchen used browbeating and threats of physical violence to get his way, warning Travick at one point that he would, “come across this table and deal with your stupidity.”

In this way, the lawsuit said, Travick, “was reduced from owner/CEO to flunkey.”

Kitchen declined to comment on the case. But he did say that OARC was getting ready to hit back on recent public claims that he felt were totally fallacious.

Now that Evans has dropped down a peg or two in state Democratic rankings, his operation may be an easier target for complaints. Wood insisted this had nothing to do with the timing of his efforts against the Evans power structure, but he too promised more to come.

And next September he also promised a revival of the Tranestop.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.