Casino improvises after water main break

Blair County Convention Center CEO Barry Kumpf was about to take a shower at home late Saturday afternoon in preparation for going out to eat when he got the call from his staff at the Blair County Convention Center.

There was a main break somewhere, and the center had no water service.

There was a big party coming, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

“I told them to take a deep breath,” Kumpf said.

Forgetting about the shower, he dressed and headed to work, and on the way began calling on his cell phone for help.

Arriving at the Convention Center, he summoned his executive chef, the facilities manager and the sales manager for a high-level confab to discuss options.

They talked about bringing in portable toilets, using bottled water already on the premises for washing and flushing, melting ice in the freezers – “a hundred different scenarios,” Kumpf said.

But 20 flushes of the toilets would run them out of bottled water, and it seemed dicey that food handlers might not be able to properly wash their hands.

What if a guest got sick?

It became clear: They’d have to cancel the event or move it.

The guests were starting to come through the doors.

The first of 150.

The water main break was over near the Casino in Lakemont, between Logan Boulevard and the lake, in a patch of woods, according to Tim Manley, supervisor of water maintenance for the Altoona Water Authority.

It was a 12-inch cast iron line, built in 1955. It was one of numerous breaks that have occurred since the cold weather ended, probably as a result of ground movement caused by the thaw.

Eventually, workers were able to isolate the break by shutting valves on either side of it, restoring water pressure to the rest of the main. There was never a total loss of water in the main, just loss of pressure.

As there were no customers in the section isolated by the valves, the authority could focus on the subsequent breaks elsewhere, postponing repair on the 12-inch main.

It was a Christmas party, even though it was well after Christmas, for employees of the Moshannon Valley Correctional Center, a low-security, privately run federal prison near Philipsburg.

When Kumpf shared the news with representatives of the party group, they pointed out that many of the guests were out of town, and many were staying in the hotel next door to the Convention Center. “They didn’t want to cancel,” Kumpf said.

When Kumpf called for help on the way to the Convention Center after aborting his shower and dinner plans, he dialed a local restaurant and a local hotel to learn whether they had room for the party, a local bus company to learn whether they could shuttle the guests somewhere, a rental outfit for a truck to transport the food and the center’s insurance carrier, to inquire about the policy covering disruption of business.

“Eight balls in the air,” Kumpf said.

He also called Doug Simon of the Casino.

That night, the Casino was hosting a wedding reception in a room on the upper floor.

The main ballroom was empty, but it was set up for an event scheduled for this week.

Kumpf asked whether Simon could get it re-set quickly for his event.

So Simon, who wasn’t at work, called the Casino to discuss the situation with his manager.

She said, “If we can help out a friend in need, let’s step up,” Simon said.

Kumpf had no alternative, he figured.

He agreed to do it.

“We jumped into action,” Simon said.

The workers who did it were kitchen staffers who didn’t normally do dining setups, working under only the one manager’s direction, without benefit of a customer meeting or seating charts.

Instructions came by phone, including answers to questions like how many chafing dishes were needed, and whether they needed a lectern and a dance floor.

“Buffets, tables, linen, China,” Simon said. “We had the room set up in about 20 minutes.”

The people from the Convention Center began arriving at 6:15.

“We were all ready,” Simon said. “With open arms.”

On first receiving the call, Simon thought, “If this was me, and I was calling around for something, I would hope that someone would do for me what he’s asking.”

“Barry put it best to me,” Simon said. “If I can ever return the favor…”

Simon said he hopes he never has to ask.

Simon thought how it would have been feasible for Kumpf if he had time to prepare – say 24 hours to fill kettles, bring in extra bottled water.

“But he literally called me 35 minutes before guests started walking in,” Simon said.

In the same situation, a hospital or nursing home would have had to handle it, Kumpf said.

But there was no such imperative at a hospitality facility like the convention center.

“We could have punted,” Kumpf said.

They didn’t because “we’re customer-service driven,” he said.

He wants the prison group to come back for next year’s Christmas party, he said.

He had no idea what moving the party would cost, Kumpf said.

“Guest satisfaction was more on my mind,” he said.

The possibility of waiting out the loss of water service didn’t occur to Kumpf until the next day.

He found out eventually that service was restored at 8:45 p.m. Saturday.

But at the time of the crisis, he didn’t know that was going to happen, as he never succeeded in making with a Water Authority official for an estimate.

“We had to make a decision and go,” Kumpf said. “And what would we have done with those people for two hours and 15 minutes [anyway]?”

It wouldn’t have made sense to serve alcohol because that would only have encouraged them “to use the facilities,” he said.

“When all was said and done, we laughed,” Kumpf said.

It was a long day for the staff, some of whom started at 8 a.m. and didn’t finish until midnight.

They didn’t serve lemon drink at the party.

Except metaphorically.

“We got lemons,” Kumpf said. “We made lemonade.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.