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SCI-Waynesburg to become school for at-risk youth

| Thursday, July 7, 2005

A Greene County prison that served as a school for girls and a home for children could see new life as a school for at-risk youth.

Gov. Ed Rendell signed a bill Tuesday that transfers ownership of the 117-acre State Correctional Institution at Waynesburg in Morgan Township to Basalt Trap Rock Co. for $990,000.

Basalt owns five drug and alcohol treatment centers. The company plans to operate the school through its nonprofit arm, AMP/CEP Group Homes, of Latrobe.

The Greene County facility has come full circle.

It began as a home for children in the early 1900s and became a school for girls before being converted to a women's prison in the mid-1980s. It opened as an all-male minimum security prison in 1992. Budget cuts forced its closing in 2003.

John Bukovac, a consultant working with AMP/CEP Group Homes, said the school hopes to enroll between 300 and 400 students.

"They may not necessarily be adjudicated through the courts," he said as he walked through the property on Wednesday. Parents could decide to send their children to the school to try to help them overcome behavior problems.

The costs of such programs -- from overeating to substance abuse -- typically run between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, he said.

AMP/CEP is not looking for state funding to help open the school, said Bukovac, who served earlier this year as chief executive officer of the financially troubled Monsour Medical Center in Jeannette.

"We wanted to do it on our own," he said.

Renovation costs are estimated at $3.5 million. Between 50 and 140 jobs will be created at the school.

Basalt hopes to begin preparing the site for students as soon as possible. The timetable will depend on the closing schedule for the sale of the property, Bukovac said. Classes could begin next year.

"It's in fairly good shape," he said. "It needs a lot of elbow grease more than anything."

A closing date has not been set, said Gary Caldwell, an Altoona attorney who has been working on the project with AMP/CEP owner Charles Powell, of Cambridge, Md.

"Mr. Powell hopes to move quickly. But financing doesn't get organized at the drop of a hat. Different banks move at different speeds," Caldwell said.

The school would be the first of its kind for the company.

"This will be a new emphasis. It's not a 28-day program," Bukovac said.

Students in middle school or junior high will attend classes through high school. The facility will meet and exceed Department of Education standards, he said.

The school also could follow students through their first year of college, Bukovac said.

State Sen. J. Barry Stout, a Bentleyville Democrat, headed the SCI-Waynesburg Re-Use Task Force to find an alternate use for the facility. It was a top priority.

"Soon the property will be generating tax revenues, creating jobs and providing a valuable service to our community," he said.

State Rep. H. William DeWeese said he and Stout convened the task force to make sure the prison would be used again.

"We have kept the community involved in the process, and this sale of the land to Basalt Trap Rock Co. will produce jobs and tax revenue for local government and the Jefferson-Morgan School District," the Waynesburg Democrat said.

Basalt was the only party interested in the property, said Pam Snyder, chairwoman of the Greene County Board of Commissioners, who served on the task force.

"This will take a piece of pretty useless property that was never on the tax rolls and put it on the tax rolls," she said.

Snyder was sworn in to office in January of last year and was named to the task force a short time later. At one point, the county had to decide whether to take over the property.

"We were very limited as to what the re-use could be," she said, adding that the county didn't have the marketing expertise or budget to handle the sale of the property.

There was very little opposition from nearby property owners to the plan to convert the prison to a school for at-risk youth, Snyder said.

"These people are used to it being a prison," she said.

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