Greensburg council questions Seton Hill University arts center
By Bob Stiles
Published: 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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