Meadville residents protest rent hikes


Lindsey Hilfred Scott

A protestor holds an image of Calamar CEO Ken Franasiak during a protest in Wheatfield, NY, on Oct. 12.

Dozens of Meadville residents, including an Allegheny College professor and student, protested rent hikes outside the Wheatfield, New York, offices of real-estate developer Calamar on Wednesday, Oct. 12.
The demonstrations are part of a larger outcry over what residents are calling unfair rent hikes of 30-40% at Calamar’s Connect 55+ building in Meadville, which offers “community-style adult living” for seniors aged 55 and older.
“The point of the rally on Wednesday was to deliver a demand letter to the CEO of the Calamar Corporation — his name is Ken Franasiak,” said Associate Professor of Communication and Media Joe Tompkins. “The tenants at Connect 55 Meadville had put together a letter demanding that the company implement a rent cap of 2% on all future rent increases and they ask that that be applied retroactively to people who had seen their rents go up 30-40%.”
Residents have demonstrated on at least two other occasions, including a demonstration last month outside Calamar’s Connect 55+ project in Erie County and a rally in August at Diamond Park.
A video of the protest livestreamed on the Crawford County Democratic Committee’s Facebook page by County Chair Lindsey Helfrey Scott showed protesters gathered in the vestibule of Calamar’s offices, listing their grievances and chanting a demand for fair rent. Around six minutes and 30 seconds into the eight-minute video, a member of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office arrived and ordered the protestors to leave, which they did with chants of “Calamar abuses elders.”
“When we got there, the doors to the lobby were already locked, there was no one visible,” Helfry Scott said. “We were trying to call the different extensions to get someone to come down and open the door and that we could talk to.”
According to both Helfrey Scott and Christopher Ratliff, ’24, who attended the protest, the only member of the protest who spoke to law enforcement was a Buffalo-area attorney specifically brought for that exact situation.
“We brought a lawyer in anticipation of a police confrontation,” Ratliff said. “So establishing that we had a lawyer and he would know our rights to make sure that no one got arrested, because it was blatantly obvious that Calamar wanted us to be arrested for trespassing.”
Following the protest, Calamar released a statement through their General Counsel Cheryl Green to local news station Erie News Now.
“We can confirm that yesterday, a group of protestors, primarily college students, led by Associate College Professor Joe Tompkins from Allegheny College, were removed by several law enforcement agencies after attempting to break through our secure entranceway doors at our corporate offices and the building was placed in lockdown,” the statement read in part.
However, Tompkins said the only Allegheny student in attendance was Ratliff, who is president of the College Democrats.
“As far as the Allegheny angle, Allegheny has nothing to do with this,” Tompkins said. “The statement that was put out by the legal counsel for the Calamar Corporation was wrong on many levels, including the part about it being primarily college students. There were other folks from Crawford County United and another affiliate organization called Erie County United. It was an attempt at corporate spin. They’re trying to deflect from the truth, which is that they’re gouging seniors and that’s their business model.”
Ratliff said that the statement was upsetting given that only two members of the Allegheny community were among the protestors.
“It seemed like they were accusing or directly attacking me and the college in stating that we were trespassing and that we wanted to cause violence at the offices,” Ratliff said.
Ratliff was invited to the demonstration by Helfrey Scott, who saw it as a way for students to see how democracy extends beyond the ballot box.
“I knew that, out of all the different places in which to do direct democracy, such as advocacy that can turn into protest-type situations, that this would be a much more safe, planned, processed, controlled environment as you could likely get,” Helfrey Scott said. “The idea of having a student come and witness the type of grassroots organizing that it takes to make effective change is just as important.”
For his part, Ratliff sees the larger movement for Connect 55+ residents as a local response to a national problem.
“I think it’s important to recognize that Calamar is probably not the only company that is doing rent prices like this, but they are in our community and they’re affecting our elderly,” Ratliff said. “The fact that they would try to bury something like this and the fact that we had to protest a peaceful protest as a last resort, just kind of shows where Calamar is at.”
Helfrey Scott is not seeking to mass-recruit students for demonstrations, but connect them to the issues that they care about.
“Being a conduit to help people into their various things that they care about, that’s kind of my role,” Helfrey Scott said. “If I can ever marry a person to their cause more closely for democracy, I’m here for it.”
According to July reporting from the Meadville Tribune, residents at Connect 55+ are seeing their rents increase by $300-$400. Some are going from paying $918 per month to paying $1,230 per month, while others are seeing rent increases from $1,344 to $1,744.
The Connect 55+ Meadville project is still under construction, with just 36 of 128 units complete, according to the Tribune. Residents are also protesting a lack of promised amenities, including a fitness center, chapel and movie theater.
Tompkins said that not delivering the promised facilities and services could lead to repercussions from statewide authorities.
“My understanding is that the Office of Attorney General cannot do anything about the rent, but they can potentially open an investigation into the failure to provide amenities as a possible violation of consumer protection law,” Tompkins said.
Calamar’s Connect 55+ chain has come under fire in other states. According to The Journal Inquirer, four contractors working on a new Connect 55+ building in Manchester, Connecticut, filed lawsuits last year against Calmar for a failure to pay them for services rendered. While several of the suits have since been withdrawn, court records show at least one is proceeding, with a “Trial Management Conference” scheduled for May 2024.
What happens next, Tompkins said, is for the residents to decide.
“They’re doing the very courageous work of standing up and fighting back against this corporate landlord,” Tompkins said. “From what I’ve discussed with them, they’re planning on continuing what they’ve been doing, which is to draw public attention to egregious actions of the company and pursue whatever avenues are available to try to bring them to the table.”
Calamar did not respond to requests for comment.