State College Borough Council considers buying College Heights school, leasing it to nonprofit

mcarroll@centredaily.comJune 9, 2014 

State College Borough Council agreed Monday to pay for an assessment of the former College Heights school building to learn how much work the building needs, and what the borough’s liability would be if things don’t work out down the line with the Collaboration of Arts, Social Services and Education.

CHRISTOPHER WEDDLE — CDT file photo Buy Photo

— Borough Council showed Monday that it’s serious about the prospect of buying the former College Heights school building and leasing it to an local umbrella nonprofit for a community center.

Council agreed Monday to pay for an assessment of the property to learn how much work the building needs, and what the borough’s liability would be if things don’t work out down the line with the Collaboration of Arts, Social Services and Education.

Members voiced strong support for CASE — which seeks space for its member nonprofits — and for helping the agency find a physical home.

But that doesn’t mean Borough Council is ready to buy the building. Its members expressed equally strong concerns about whether CASE can afford the former school.

An assessment will give everyone a better idea of just what an undertaking that would be, officials said.

The decision to move forward with the assessment also likely means council will not make its self-imposed deadline to make a decision on the matter by June 16.

The State College Area School District, which owns the building, has an agreement in place to sell the former school to Penn State.

Council has right of first refusal on all district property in State College, but such a decision must be made within a certain amount of time — in this case, July 17, giving council some wiggle room despite its internal deadline.

And July is likely how long it would have to wait for assessment results, borough Manager Tom Fountaine said Monday.

Since the sale was first announced in January, CASE has come forward with interest in the former school, and many subsequent discussions at borough meetings seemed to point to either the nonprofit or Penn State ending up with ownership.

On Monday, it became clear if the borough intervenes, it will keep the property and lease it to CASE. And there would be stipulations for the agency.

Borough solicitor Terry Williams said the group would have to agree to a 20-year lease that would cover the purchase cost of the land.

CASE would also agree to pay property taxes — something Penn State would not have to do — preserve the Atherton Street facade and follow zoning requirements.

Councilman Peter Morris, like other members of the panel, expressed support for CASE. But he said the borough could be faced with difficult decisions and liabilities if the organization can’t afford the building and eventually has to break a lease.

“Right now, I feel I can’t take that chance,” Morris said.

Members called for more information, like what the assessment will reveal, before making a final decision.

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer suggested CASE publicly disclose its funding situation to ease concerns, both on council and in the community, about how the group can afford the property.

Council President Jim Rosenberger asked the others on the panel whether they should become landlords at all. Some community members have expressed concerns about that throughout the process.

“If the borough enters into an agreement (with CASE), we become landlords and we do it because we are pretty strongly in favor of their activities,” Rosenberger said. “... I’m simply expressing my ambivalence to whether we should become a property owner because (of) our feelings about CASE.”

Councilwoman Cathy Dauler said there are examples of times when the borough purchased, sold and leased land, citing the borough building, Schlow library and parking garages as examples of each.

“We are in some ways landlords,” she said. “This is not something we’ve never done before. We certainly have legal standing to do it again.”

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

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