Possible new buyer comes forward for College Heights school site

mcarroll@centredaily.comMarch 18, 2014 

— A second potential buyer has emerged for the College Heights school property, borough officials said Monday.

The Center for Arts, Social Services and Education is interested in the former elementary school building and can make its pitch for the property at a Borough Council meeting next month, State College officials said.

The group, an umbrella nonprofit, wants a building that can be shared by its members, including the local chapter of the American Association of University Woman, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Penn State and the Centre County United Way.

The State College Area School District has an agreement in place to sell the building to Penn State, but the borough has right-of-first refusal, or the first chance to buy, when it comes to all district-owned property in the municipality.

If the borough exercises its right-of-first refusal and then opts to sell the property, it wouldn’t necessarily have to put the building up for bid, depending on the potential buyer and the proposed use.

“It depends,” said Borough Manager Tom Fountaine. “There are some uses that the borough has the ability to sell the property without receiving bids. There are a number of legal issues council will advise the board on as it proceeds.”

Borough Council will take its time with the decision, approving a schedule Monday that calls for a final vote in June and several discussions at public meetings between now and then.

Council members said they want to encourage public participation in the process. Some members expressed concern that the district’s decision to sell was not open.

“The decision about that really should be made publicly, and openly,” said Councilman Peter Morris. “Unfortunately this school board, probably because they were too busy with the high school and everything, didn’t do that. So it is up to us, because we have the right of first refusal. I think we are doing exactly the right thing.”

Penn State and CASE are set to present their plans for the building at an April 7 council meeting. The groups are to lay out, among other things, how the building would be used and how they will fund the purchase and any necessary rehabilitation.

School district officials, also invited to the meeting, will be asked to provide an overview of the process they relied when making the decision to sell to Penn State, according to the borough’s agenda.

“The other thing (that concerns me) is the fact that CASE ... talked with the school board and walked through the property and were told they could have a chance to bid or discuss, and then were told ‘gee, we’re sorry, Penn State has made an offer and we’ve accepted it,’” said Councilwoman Theresa Lafer. “That’s precisely what we don’t want to see happen. And it concerns me a lot.”

District spokeswoman Julie Miller confirmed Monday that CASE met with school officials about the property, but she directed additional questions to solicitor Scott Etter, who did not immediately respond.

Penn State has offered to purchase the property from the the school district for $400,000. The district first announced in January it had been approached by an interested, but anonymous, buyer.

The university would use the school building to house the Penn State Press, a university spokeswoman previously said. The spokeswoman said the university press has outgrown its current location in University Support Building I, which is tucked away near the poultry and mushroom research centers on the northern terminus of University Drive.

The school, at 721 N. Atherton St., houses the district’s printing services and curriculum offices, which are expected to move to another building, and officials have said there is no longer a use for the property.

Dianne Gregg, vice president of CASE, said that organization is interested in a building to consolidate resources for its members and to create an idea-sharing space where local nonprofits can work together and collaborate.

“How many board rooms do you need — you need one and you share it,” Gregg said Monday. “How many Xerox machines to do you need — you need one and you share it. So OLLI has its classes in the morning. AAUW needs its book storage space. Some of our organizations are very small and all they are looking for is a filing cabinet and the use of a desk. Some organizations would be there a lot. We are looking at a facility to share.”

Gregg said the group has been looking for a location for 10 years, and that affordable property has been hard to find.

Morris said he was under the impression that if the district bought and sold the building to a nonprofit, it would not have to accept bids.

Borough solicitor Terry Williams said that depends on the “nature of the purchase,” and that without a “clear definition of who the purchaser is, that question can not be answered.”

“It’s not a slam dunk without all the proper information,” he said.

Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter.

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