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Westmoreland commissioner Kopas wants state to turn over former prison

By Richard Gazarik
Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

A Westmoreland County commissioner wants the state to demolish the former state prison on Route 119 and turn the property over to the county to market to potential developers.

Ted Kopas said he's angry over the lack of public disclosure by the Corbett administration and wants the state to inform local officials exactly what steps it is taking to sell the 123 acres once owned by the county.

“If there's a plan to market the property, it's the best-kept secret in the state,” Kopas said Monday.

Kopas contends the state is not actively trying to sell the property. The prison closed in June, eliminating 400 jobs and an estimated $20 million in tax revenue for the county and surrounding municipalities.

Department of General Services spokesman Troy Thompson said the state has no plans to give the site to the county.

“At this point, we're marketing this property as is,” Thompson said. “We actually seek out buyers. We have a staff who acts as the state's real estate broker.”

In a July 16 letter to Gov. Tom Corbett, Kopas wrote that “plans for the facility remain unknown by neighbors and other key stakeholders and rumors are running rampant. It is my hope that the state will properly fund the demolition of this complex to allow for its immediate redevelopment. This is an idea that received widespread support from my fellow community leaders at a meeting held in February with members of your administration.

“Certainly, our county economic development professionals have the experience and expertise to help determine the best use of this prime real estate,” he wrote.

Kopas said the longer the building is vacant, the more it will cost taxpayers to maintain.

“The governor needs to be forthright with the people and explain the plan, if he has one,” Kopas said in an interview. “We need answers on this.”

The prison consists of 32 buildings and costs $2 million a year to maintain, according to General Services. The state plans to spend an estimated $100,000 to sell the property.

State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said it would cost between $10 million and $14 million to raze the buildings, according to discussions she's had with state officials.

“That's a big chunk of money,” Ward said. “The state seems confident they can unload it. I'm not so confident. I'm willing to support any idea that would create a tax base and bring some jobs here.”

State Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, said he would support Kopas' plan only if the state can't sell the property.

“If we can't market and sell it as is, we could demolish (the prison) and take it down to the ground,” Reese said.

State Rep. George Dunbar, R-Penn Township, doesn't know what the county could do to market the property that the state isn't. He said the Department of General Services, the state's landlord, brought in a firm that operates private prisons for the federal Bureau of Corrections for a property inspection with the thought of opening a federal prison.

“It didn't meet federal standards for cells,” Dunbar said. “The cells are too small.”

Thompson said the marketing process is just starting after the General Assembly in June gave approval to dispose of the real estate. He said the state is hiring an appraiser to determine the property's value and will work with local officials to develop the former prison.

“I do know we work with local organizations to market properties. We actually put a task force together, and the Department of Community and Economic Development is involved.”

Thompson said one potential developer toured the structure this summer, but he didn't know any details.

When SCI-Greensburg closed, inmates were transferred to other institutions including a new prison, SCI Brenner in Centre County.

The surprise announcement this year that the 44-year-old facility would close left state and county lawmakers confused and angry because of the suddenness and secrecy of the state's decision.

“We are very hopeful that the property will be acquired by someone. The best way for the property to be sold would be tear down the current prison and then market the property,” Hempfield Supervisor Doug Weimer said. The prison was built by the county. The county sold it to the state, which opened the State Regional Correctional Facility in 1969 and later expanded it into a prison.

The Department of Corrections poured millions of dollars into upgrading the facility, including $10 million in new modular housing units.

The Department of General Services also is trying to sell the former state prison in Cresson in Cambria County. The agency is “marketing the property as is,” according to its website.

Weimer said the township hasn't received any inquiries through its planning or zoning office “by any interested parties.”

The sale of the two prisons is part of the state's Real Estate Disposition Plan for 2013. Since 2011, the state has sold 39 surplus properties, generating more than $31 million, according to the state.

Also up for bid are National Guard armories across the state, parcels within state hospital grounds, a youth development center, office space and the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Hospital in Philadelphia.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

 

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