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Officials vow to fight, with all options, closing of prison in Westmoreland

| Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
Westmoreland County Commissioners (from left) Charles Anderson, Tyler Courtney, and Ted Kopas field a question about the state’s plan to close SCI Greensburg during the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce annual luncheon at Ferrante's Lakeview near Greensburg on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review

Westmoreland County commissioners said Thursday they will exhaust all options to try to keep open the state prison in Hempfield.

“We're going to fight this with every fiber of our being,” Commissioner Charles Anderson said.

State officials announced this week that prisons in Westmoreland and Cambria counties will close and inmates will be relocated to a new, $200 million prison in Centre County slated to open later this year.

The state correctional institution in Hempfield, known as SCI Greensburg, is scheduled to be shut down by June 30.

Commissioner Ted Kopas said local officials will explore all avenues to convince state officials to change that decision.

“I wouldn't rule out a lawsuit, but it is the last preferred option,” Kopas said.

Local officials said they were blindsided when the state plans were disclosed Tuesday. By Wednesday, state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, convened Republican elected officials to discuss the planned closure.

Anderson said Thursday that a bipartisan effort, including Kopas and Democratic lawmakers Joe Petrarca of Oklahoma Borough and Ted Harhai of Monessen, will be needed to save the prison.

Ward has called for Senate hearings. County officials are seeking a detailed explanation from the state as to why the Westmoreland prison was targeted.

“We have to have data. We're in the fact-finding stage,” Commissioner Tyler Courtney said.

State officials have said the Westmoreland prison is one of the smallest and least utilized in the corrections system.

Westmoreland County sold the prison to the state in 1966.

Anderson suggested the county or a third party could buy back the property if the prison is closed.

Preliminary discussions have been held about other potential uses for the property, such as converting it for use as a treatment and custody center for drunken-driving defendants and state parole violators.

Officials said those suggestions will take a back seat while the county fights to keep open the prison, which employs about 400 and houses nearly 1,000 inmates.

Jason Rigone, executive director of the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp., said it is too early to assess the economic impact the closure could have on the region.

“It's literally only been just 36 hours since we received any notice of this. Because we were literally blindsided, we really haven't had an opportunity to assess the economic impact. But we will be gathering that information,” Rigone said.

Cambria County officials, who stand to lose the state prison in Cresson, are asking Gov. Tom Corbett for a 12-month moratorium on the decision. They asked Corbett to establish a commission to study the closings of prisons “in a nonpolitical” way.

Mark Pasquerilla, chairman of the Greater Johnstown Regional Partnership, wrote Corbett Wednesday pleading for the delay.

“Our region is extremely concerned to hear the disturbing news about your decision to close our State Correctional Institution (in) Cresson, Pennsylvania. We know there are other ways you can save this money in the state budget that will not have as devastating an impact on the Pennsylvania economy as closing this community economic engine in Cresson,” Pasquerilla wrote.

He is the chief executive of Crown American, a privately held company based in Johnstown that manages and develops commercial real estate.

Rich Cholodofsky and Paul Peirce are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Cholodofsky can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com. Peirce can be reached at 724-850-2860 or ppeirce@tribweb.com.

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