Share This Page

Greensburg council questions Seton Hill University arts center

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Greensburg City Council is expected to support plans for a new Seton Hill University dance and visual arts center next week, but some members question using taxpayer money to pay for a large part of that construction.

Gov. Tom Corbett, a Shaler Republican, has freed up $6 million in R-Cap funds, which are intended for job creation and economic development, toward the $12 million project.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell originally set aside the money for the new center at the intersection of West Otterman Street and College Avenue. He later forwarded $5 million in funding, formerly known as walking-around-money, or WAMs, to help construct the university's art center on West Otterman Street and Harrison Avenue.

City council briefly reviewed the land development and site plans for the center during a meeting on Tuesday and will vote on the plans Monday.

“Do I think it's an asset for the city? Yes,” Councilwoman Kathleen McCormick said. “But I think we need to take a look, when we have so many programs being cut, giving out borrowed money.

“I'm all for Seton Hill expanding,” the Republican added. “I'm not for R-Cap money, which is borrowed money, unless it's going to create a substantial number of jobs.”

Mayor Ron Silvis, who last year retired from Seton Hill as a part-time professor, defended the university's use of taxpayer money.

“My position is, if we don't take it, somebody else will take it,” Silvis said. “We might as well use it. I have no problem with it.”

Solicitor Bernard McArdle has determined that Silvis can vote on the plans despite his former ties to the university, the mayor said.

“There's absolutely no conflict there,” Silvis said.

Democrat Rob DePasquale said he supports Seton Hill getting the R-Cap money.

“My understanding is these are the kind of projects R-Cap is meant for,” said the councilman, who opted not to seek re-election. “Somebody judged it worthy, so who am I to question that?”

The center is proposed for a vacant lot, DePasquale noted.

“If the option is a vacant parcel or building on the parcel, I'm all for (building on it),” he said.

Councilman Bill Eger said he opposes the use of R-Cap money for the project but noted planning was done before he joined the board last year.

“I'm probably going to make up my mind when I walk into council chambers next week,” he said of his vote.

Eger, a Republican, said he doesn't like using R-Cap money for such projects and said he may vote no on principle.

“It's money that has to be repaid, with interest,” Eger said.

In a prepared statement, Seton Hill President JoAnne Boyle noted the university generates revenue for the city and helps to make Greensburg “a vibrant place to live, work and visit.”

University officials estimate the arts center, the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill and other development have brought in at least $130 million over the last decade, and the university's employment jumped by 100.

McCormick noted she opposed the city's initial efforts to accept the $6 million. She said she probably will support the center's plans next week, since the money already is allocated.

But government leaders must give more thought to how R-Cap money is used, McCormick cautioned.

Greensburg is serving as the sponsoring agency because Seton Hill is a private university and cannot directly get the money without the city's involvement.

Over the last decade, city officials have directed development toward making construction easier for higher education and medical facilities such as Seton Hill, Excela Health and the medical school.

They point to a Brookings Institution report that states “eds and meds” are going to improve municipal economies.

But a 2007 Pennsylvania Economy League report notes that though universities can bring “undisputed economic and social benefits” to a municipality, the town or city can lose out in other ways, mainly in tax revenue.

Nonprofits own nearly 35 percent of property in Greensburg but do not pay real estate taxes, according to city records.

The nonprofits need to contribute, McCormick said, because they use police, fire and other services, just like tax-paying property owners.

Seton Hill has given $30,000 in donations to the city since 2012, saying the money was in recognition of the partnership with the municipality. The medical school given $5,000 in donations.

Last year, the medical school's campus in Erie promised $500,000 over five years to Erie to help with expenses, according to published reports.

In 2011, Greensburg collected $43,513 in voluntary contributions from nonprofits.

If Greensburg collected real estate taxes from all tax-exempt properties, the amount collected in 2011 would have been approximately $1.7 million, city officials said at that time.

Bob Stiles is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6622 or bstiles@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.