Owner of former Saltsburg mill seeks permit to demolish historic building
Saltsburg Borough Council has received word that a demolition permit for the former Altman's Mill has been requested through Indiana County. But that request is in limbo since the building is located in the borough's historic district, where all building permits must first gain approval from the town's Historic Architecture Review Board.
Eric Sutliff, owner of Saltsburg River & Trail and co-owner of the building, said the property was “completely dilapidated” when he purchased it in the late 1990s and renovations to the building have been an ongoing project.
Sutliff indicated in a Tuesday phone interview that demolition is the latest option being considered for the former mill after he and co-owner Bill Joyce completed initial improvements to the structure but recently have been cited for alleged building ordinance violations. Meanwhile, Sutliff indicated, opportunities to partner with other parties to continue improvements to the building have not come to fruition.
Sutliff said he and Joyce, who is an architect, have put thousands of dollars of their own money into the first phase of restoration of the building. He said that included hiring Amish workers to put in new floors and making ceiling repairs, working to make the building weather-tight.
The second phase, Sutliff said, involved the founding of his business, Saltsburg River & Trail, which rents canoes, kayaks, bikes and other equipment to visitors who flock to the area to make use of the growing trail and river recreation being developed around Saltsburg.
Sutliff said responsibility for the building soon “had morphed down to just me” when, he said, Joyce ceased participation and became a non-present partner. Sutliff remarked that the condition of the building since then “wasn't any sort of conscious neglect” on his part, but he said he has been waiting for resources to be made available to help him in his endeavors.
“Behind the scenes, it has been dead end after dead end,” he said.
At one time, he noted, his vision was to make the mill into a museum to complement the Rebecca B. Hadden Stone House Museum located across Point Street.
It came to the point, according to Sutliff, that he had been talking with grassroots preservation group Townspeople, Inc. about donating the property.
Prior to that, Sutliff said, he had an offer for a $5,000 grant through the Mellon Foundation to help make necessary repairs to the mill's roof. But he said he had to turn down the funding when he could not get a nonprofit organization to assist by signing off on the grant.
He said he'd approached the Saltsburg Area Historical Society, which operates the Stone House Museum, about providing the required signatures.
According to historical society officer Jack Maguire, who spoke in a phone interview after borough council's Monday meeting, his understanding was that the society would have been required to take over ownership of the old mill.
“There was no way the historical society could take on a responsibility of that magnitude,” said Maguire.
After a few more years of fruitless searches for aid, according to Sutliff, he and Joyce donated money to Townspeople, Inc., which had volunteered two or three years ago to make repairs to the mill's siding, put in new windows and purchase and install a tarp over a hole in the roof.
Townspeople, Inc. had done most of the work, Sutliff said. At the time, he noted, he was under the impression the organization was planning to take over the building.
After Townspeople, Inc. was founded, Sutliff claimed he initially had been working with the organization to help gain funding, but he felt interest in helping him wavered after he began receiving building ordinance citations from Saltsburg police.
Sutliff said he was under the impression that Townspeople, Inc. would speak on his behalf, but he said he never received any support in court hearings resulting from the citations.
Maguire, who additionally is involved with Townspeople, Inc., said that group has always acknowledged the importance of the mill in regard to the health of Saltsburg's downtown business district and ensuring it's preserved. He said Townspeople, Inc. has tried to help with the mill in the past — but, upon seeing that not much progress was being made in talks with the building owners, the organization had backed off.
More recently, he'd heard that Townspeople, Inc. might make an offer to purchase the building outright, and eventually, that offer came.
“They have made an offer on the property and the building, but we think that the (offer) has been extremely low,” said Sutliff, noting the offer also includes Saltsburg River & Trail.
He said he believes he and Joyce have been pushed into a corner after receiving weekly citations from the police and have been left with no choice but to pursue demolition.
He said he attempted to get the permit for demolition through the county because he believes the Historic Architecture Review Board has a conflict of interest, since Maguire's wife is president of the board.
After Saltsburg's police chief, Gary Walker, resigned on July 18, Sutliff attended a district court hearing the next week. Without a representative from the borough present, the citations against Sutliff and his property were dropped.
Addressing that matter at borough council's Monday meeting, council President P. J. Hruska said the departing police chief told him that another officer would be taking over the chief's hearings.
“I was sick when I heard,” Hruska said of the missed hearing for the mill building, noting that it was a matter of miscommunication.
With the possibility that more hazardous building citations could come his way, Sutliff has been looking for people who might be interested in receiving the historic mill equipment currently housed in the building before the start of demolition, if it comes to that point. A museum in Wisconsin has expressed interest, he said.
He said he's also been in daily conversation with the nonprofit Preservation PA.
“They're committed with trying to find a preservation solution to this,” Sutliff said. “We're hoping that this will be a new door.
“I'm still optimistic that something positive will happen with the negotiations,” said Maguire. “That's my hope.”
In the phone interview, Maguire also gave an update on other preservation projects in town, including the old Saltsburg Hotel building on Point Street. It is undergoing an exterior paint job, with new front windows being fabricated for the first floor.
Maguire also said an announcement would be forthcoming about a new grant received for the W.R. McIlwain Store and Warehouse, known locally as the” mule barn.” The grant, through the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, has just been approved for the front façade, “to bring it back to the way it looked in the late 1800s,” said Maguire.
Progress has been made with the building in recent months, mostly on the inside, he noted.
At council's meeting, Hruska said he hopes the former Alman's Mill remains in Saltsburg, but he said something has to be done about its condition. He pointed out the dangers of the hole in the roof.
“It should have been fixed 15 years ago,” he said.
Kathy McCormick, a part-time employee of Sutliff's, spoke at the meeting in defense of the mill. Hruska thanked her for the work she's done in trying to preserve the mill and for acting at times as a liaison between Sutliff and council.
“I can work with you,” she said. “I'd like the mill to stay.”
McCormick also asked council about the scaffolding that has been on the sidewalk in front of a building on Washington Street for over a year. Hruska said he's been in contact recently with the building owner to take care of it.
The board heard the concerns of Barb Lasher and McCormick about the town's feral cat problem.
The women said a few organizations specializing in feral cats have expressed interest in helping, including Frankie's Friends cat rescue in Tarentum. That group holds a free clinic at the end of August at which any trapped cats can be brought to be spayed or neutered, given a flea and tick treatment and a rabies shot, and have their ears notched, marking them as having been treated. Lasher said Five Points Veterinary Services in Saltsburg has also offered to help.
In other business Monday, borough council:
• Approved raising borough sewage rates from $55 to $60 per month. The extra money will be used to help construct the town's new sewage treatment plant;
• OK'd a sign for a new restaurant at 117 Point St. — River and Trail Café, already approved by the Historic Architecture Review Board;
• Gave approval to the Rebecca B. Hadden Stone House Museum to hold its annual Tag Days from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 3 and from 9 a.m. to noon Oct. 4 in downtown Saltsburg;
• Agreed to close a portion of Point Street at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 12 for the Heritage Holiday Committee's annual car cruise during the town's Community Day. The borough also will close the alley above the Canal Park comfort station for the Saltsburg Music Boosters to hold a craft vendor show that same day;
• Approved purchasing materials to make repairs to the roof of the garage on Pine Way, used for storage by the borough, and to excavate a ditch at the fire department, at a cost not to exceed $5,200. The Saltsburg Volunteer Fire Department offered to provide the labor pro bono;
• Announced that the Saltsburg Free Library will hold an open house for government officials and special guests 2-4 p.m. Sept. 13, to give an update on the progress at the library;
• Approved the advertisement of a proposed liquor license for Regis and Nancy Georges, owners of the Olde Salt Restaurant on Point Street.
Gina DelFavero is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2915 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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