State College Borough Council changes course on College Heights building

jhartley@centredaily.comJuly 14, 2014 

— In a 5-2 vote, the State College Borough Council voted Monday to waive its right of first refusal to purchase the College Heights elementary school.

The motion to waive first refusal came after a brief statement by Collaboration of Arts, Social Services and Education President Mary Dupuis in which she indicated that the organization would not be able to financially sustain the property.

Councilwomen Cathy Dauler and Theresa Lafer voted against the motion.

In her statement, Dupuis said that CASE originally had sought a property it eventually could own after renovations and a term of occupancy.

After the discovery that the building would be owned by the borough with no option to purchase, potential investors dwindled and it was difficult to find the appropriate funds needed for renovations, Dupuis said.

“CASE appreciates the leadership of the borough,” she said, “but after a great deal of deliberation, we withdraw our offer.”

Councilman Peter Morris suggested that the council continue to work with CASE to find a property for the organization. Lafer commended CASE on its decision to not dive into a situation that could end badly.

With the building now vacated, council members debated their options with the property.

Morris was the first to propose a motion that the council waive its right of first refusal. Penn State would be in the position to purchase the building once borough involvement ends.

Lafer suggested an amendment to the motion, saying an additional memorandum of understanding should be drafted between Penn State and the borough solidifying understandings made by email that Penn State would uphold certain agreements if it comes to acquire the property.

Borough Manager Tom Fontaine said the borough would still retain the right of first refusal if Penn State decides to sell the building, creating property-line vegetation buffers between the property and neighboring residences, addressing a stormwater runoff issue and maintaining the facade of the building. And Penn State would submit an application for a special exception permit to the zoning board, as required by the zoning ordinance.

Lafer also suggested that council still consider purchasing the property because it is a valuable asset to the borough and the community.

Neither the amendment nor the suggestion to purchase was well supported.

Councilman Evan Myers argued that council only has until Thursday to waive the right of first refusal if the board decides to pursue that option. The council is in a tough place, he said. The council and community at large also have not had discussions on purchasing the property for any option other than to house CASE.

“With no clear path forward,” he said, “I can’t support the amendment.”

The amendment was supported by Cathy Dauler, who said that because a similar agreement was expected of CASE, it should also be expected of Penn State.

Ford Stryker, a representative from the Penn State Office of Physical Plant who was in attendance, confirmed that it would be problematic to have a memorandum drafted, sent to the Penn State legal department and signed by Wednesday. He assured the council that Penn State would honor the conditions.

The motion for the amendment failed the council vote.

Dauler continued to recommend that the council purchase the property with the intention of using it in the future. She suggested that community input could be taken over a period of time after the purchase.

Morris countered that properties come onto the market all the time, but the borough doesn’t purchase many. In the case of this property, there was a clearly set purpose for the property with details and money in place, Morris said. If property is purchased with only the intention of doing something with it in the future, it could lead to a bad outcome for the borough.

“I don’t see an arguement for buying the College Heights school that doesn’t apply to a hundred other properties on the real estate market now,” he said.

The building is owned by State College Area School District, which can now sell the property to Penn State, per an agreement with the university. Penn State previously said it would use the building as office space for the University Press.

Jeremy Hartley can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @JJHartleyNews.

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