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Handicap access needed to make armory compliant

Jeff Himler
| Saturday, May 5, 2012, 4:55 a.m.

BLAIRSVILLE - If the borough gains ownership of the old armory building on North Walnut Street, either alone or in partnership with some other local entity, it should plan on spending an estimated $154,000 to get the structure ready for use as a public facility.

Representatives of Remington, Vernick and Beach, the borough's new engineering consultant, have calculated that figure based on the work that would be needed to bring the 1909 stone landmark into compliance with modern standards for handicapped access.

That includes an exterior entrance ramp, a stair lift or elevator to the second floor and modified rest rooms and doorways.

Engineer Kenneth C. Ressler, who recently inspected the historic castle-like building, advised borough officials that it is structurally sound.

But he also recommended an additional $261,000 worth of long-term improvements--including replacement of the armory's roofing and boiler, repair of leak-damaged corner sections of the wood drill hall floor, installation of air conditioning and repointing of the exterior stone wall, mostly at the rear of the building.

Ressler noted long-term costs could be less, depending on the intended use of the building and how much of it would be open to the public.

The engineer delivered his report at a special borough council session last week. Council also heard input from local citizens on whether the borough should purchase the armory and, if so, what could be done with the building.

Dick Headrick, who worked on a study of the building several years ago, advised borough officials to complete an updated cost vs. benefit analysis before committing to purchase the armory from the state Department of General Services (DGS).

Referring to recent suggestions that the armory be converted as a recreation center or a borough police station, Headrick questioned whether there is any real need to expand beyond the facilities which currently house those functions--the borough-owned Blairsville community center and the borough building, respectively.

"Can you justify the expense of the building?" he asked. "Is it really a necessity?"

"Do you really want to put it on your table at this time?" he added, pointing out the borough currently is engaged in contract talks with its employees.

Initially, the state was asking $175,000 for the building after its previous occupant, the local National Guard unit, moved in 2002 to a new headquarters in the nearby Derry Township village of Torrance.

Since there has been little interest in the building at that price, there have been indications that the state may be willing to accept a lower figure.

Borough Manager Ron Hood indicated DGS has allowed the borough "first dibs" on the armory, He said a DGS representative indicated in mid-December the department would wait about 90 days before seeking other bids on the property, by posting it on an Internet site.

Tim Evans, Blairsville's recreation director, suggested the armory's large drill hall could be used as a multi-purpose area, serving as an auxiliary gym, an adult education center or a rental hall for craft shows, as the need may be.

He noted the existing gym at the community center often is booked solid on winter evenings: "I turn down two to three groups per week that want to rent the gym."

Evans passed along other suggestions from community members, that part of the armory be used as a veteran's memorial or a local sports hall of fame.

He pointed out, if the facility is devoted to recreational programs, the borough shouldn't expect to make any profit on rental fees.

"You're looking to break even, at best," he said, suggesting grant assistance would be needed to help defray expenses.

Linda Gwinn, a leading advocate of a proposed local bike trail, noted the trail route would pass near the armory, making it an ideal location for a kiosk providing tourist information.

Noting that the distinctive structure has been listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, Gwinn urged the borough to look into a program which could allow the municipality to pass along tax credits to a private entity, such as a bank, in return for funding to preserve the building's historic facade.

John Turack, Main Street Manager for the Blairsville Improvement Group, added that grants may be available through the National Park Service or the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Council member Mary Ugoletti said she would like the borough to partner with a private, non-profit entity in order to pursue purchase of the armory.

Council President Ron Evanko read a letter from James Carmo, an architect from Blairsville now based in Palm Beach, Fla., Remarking on the aesthetic and historic value of the armory, Carmo offered his expertise to the borough and urged Blairsville officials to "do all they can to preserve this legacy."

Evanko said council must "weigh how much taxes we would have to raise to pay for the project."

Headrick and council member Andy Baker both expressed concern about future maintenance and utility costs for the armory. Headrick cited the shortage of nearby parking as another problem.

Turack said his research on that topic indicated the state paid an average of $699 per month for utilities at the armory in 2004.

But Evanko pointed out the building was unoccupied at the time. He said costs would be higher to operate the structure as a public facility.

Hood cited 2005 costs at the community center for comparison: $8,890 for natural gas and electric service; $6,854 for insurance coverage.

Borough officials have indicated they discussed cooperative use of the armory with leaders of the adjacent United Presbyterian Church.

Representing the church at last week's meeting, Bonni Dunlap urged council to continue that dialogue.

"We would like to be involved in the discussion," she said. "We know this is going to impact us if you buy that property."

Dunlap suggested cooperative scheduling of programming at the two facilities to help control the demand on limited parking spaces.

Blairsville Council announced last week the borough and its grant-writing consultant, Leann Chaney, are ready to proceed with planning for proposed bike- and pedestrian-friendly streetscaping improvements on downtown sections of Market and Campbell streets.

Council member Mary Ugoletti said Chaney will prepare a formal request for proposals, the first step in selecting an engineer to design the improvements.

Some advocates of the streetscaping effort had worried the borough might risk losing nearly $1 million in state Home Town Streets funding if progress wasn't made on the project.

Borough officials had thought they would have to separate interconnected storm and sanitary sewers underneath Market Street before they could pursue the streetscaping. To that end, they recently employed a separate engineering firm, ATS-Chester, to assist in applying for state PennVest funding of a sewer separation.

Instead, council reported the firm concluded there's no need to separate the systems and the funding application won't be pursued.

Blairsville Borough is kicking off a new voluntary drop-off recycling program on Saturday, beginning at 8 a.m. in the borough parking lot....Recycling no longer will be held in the Bi-Lo parking lot....

New recycling trailers will be in use. Personnel will be on hand Saturday to answer questions about the program.

It is critical that:

  • Bottle caps be removed.

  • Glass be separated by color.

  • Only No. 1 and No. 2 plastic containers be recycled.

  • Plastic bags be removed and disposed of.

    In the interest of saving space, plastic containers should be flattened, if possible....

    Other items accepted include: aluminum and steel food and beverage cans; corrugated cardboard; newspapers and magazines.

    After Saturday, the trailers should be available for drop-offs in the borough lot seven days per week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Volunteers are being sought to lock and unlock the trailers at those times. Those interested should call Michael Gwinn at 724-459-5656.

    Blairsville Mayor John Zedick has declared Super Bowl Sunday Black and Gold Day in the borough in support of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the American Conference champions. All residents are encouraged to display the Steeler colors and related team spirit items.

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