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State Sen. Brewster wants more cities eligible for the improvement zone

| Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, 4:16 a.m.

State Sen. James Brewster is backing legislation to expand the state's new City Revitalization and Improvement Zone program beyond eight cities now deemed eligible.

“It focused on much larger cities, much more affluent cities,” said Brewster, a Democrat from McKeesport who is minority chairman of the Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee.

On Dec. 30, Gov. Tom Corbett announced that Bethlehem and Lancaster would get the first City Revitalization and Improvement Zone designations.

“We developed the CRIZ program to spark local economic growth, create jobs, and improve the lives of city residents and visitors,” the governor said.

Brewster endorsed legislation introduced on Wednesday by Sens. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, and John Blake, D-Lackawanna County, to expand the zone to 15 locations by 2016.

“The state must be a better partner with our cities in fostering investment, stabilizing our local tax bases, and sparking economic growth and infrastructure investment,” said Blake, who with Schwank represents cities eligible for zone status but which were rejected in the first round.

Department of Community and Economic Development spokesman Steve Kratz said his agency is aware of the Schwank-Blake proposal, but that the fiscal impact has to be taken into consideration.

“This is a first-of-its-kind program,” Kratz said. “We really want to see how effective it is before looking at expanding it.”

As established in the state's tax code for 2013-14, the zones could be created only for cities with a population greater than 30,000. McKeesport, the largest city in Brewster's 48th District, has only 19,000.

“I thought that was inappropriate,” Brewster said. “I think there may have been two senators who voted no on it and I was one of them. That should have been notice enough that a former mayor who has six third-class cities in his district didn't think the bill would go far enough.”

In a 47-2 vote, the other no came from Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Dunbar Township, whose 32nd District includes Uniontown and Connellsville.

Under the program as included in the tax code, the next round of applications for the zone will not be considered before 2016.

The governor's office said applications from Bethlehem, Lancaster, Scranton, Erie and Reading were reviewed by the state departments of Community and Economic Development and of Revenue, as well as the state Office of the Budget.

Altoona, Wilkes-Barre and Chester are the other cities eligible for the program.

“We are happy that Lancaster and Bethlehem were selected and are on their way to reaping the benefits of the CRIZ program,” Schwank said. “However, there are too many cities like Scranton, Reading and Erie that need and can use this, and they should have that ability now.”

Schwank represents Reading, Blake represents Scranton.

Brewster said the six third-class cities in his 45th District — McKeesport, Duquesne, Clairton, New Kensington, Arnold and Lower Burrell —should have that ability, too.

“In New Kensington, there's an empty Alcoa building and I know the mayor up there is trying very hard to develop that area,” Brewster said.

That's an apparent reference to the former Alcoa Research Labs along Freeport and Edgewood roads. It was built 85 years ago, later abandoned, then sold to Moret Construction in 2003.

Developer Steve Kubrick started renovating the lab buildings in 2012. He received a $1.2 million low-interest state loan in September under the Business in Our Sites program to redevelop what he now calls the A-K (for Alle-Kiski) Research Park.

“These locations were great sites when these places were booming,” Brewster said. “They're still great sites.”

Brewster said expansion of the zone likely will be a topic for hearings when Corbett gives his budget proposal next month. He predicted that other senators in both parties will see merit in expanding the program.

Patrick Cloonan writes for Trib Total Media.

He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or