Benner Commerce Park created questions, not jobs

The new Pennsylvania State Police barracks is being built at the corner of Penntech Drive and Industrial Drive in the Benner Commerce Park.
The new Pennsylvania State Police barracks is being built at the corner of Penntech Drive and Industrial Drive in the Benner Commerce Park.

Construction of the new Pennsylvania State Police barracks in Benner Commerce Park is progressing, but surrounding the building are empty fields that serve as reminder of a struggling attempt by local and state legislators to drive economic growth in the area.

In 2005, near the future entrance to the park, former Gov. Ed Rendell delivered a speech supporting the sale of 135 acres of state-owned land to the Centre County Industrial Development Corporation, the legal entity of the chamber of business and industry, for $1. Rendell told the crowd that he was confident the land sale would produce 4,000 permanent jobs when the park was filled with businesses and industry.

Twelve years later, about 100 jobs have been created by the park’s two tenants and about 125 acres divided between eight plots of land remain undeveloped.

“Gov. Rendell was known as somebody that was an extraordinarily optimistic politician, but the mindset of the economy in 2005 and 2006 was a lot different before the great recession,” Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe said. “But putting that aside, I’ve been surprised by the fact that there hasn’t been interest in it and there hasn’t been any ground broken from the private sector.”

In April, the state police announced plans to consolidate the Rockview barracks in Milesburg and the Philipsburg barracks into the new facility being constructed by Hudson Companies of Hermitage. The state is leasing the barracks from Hudson for about $28,000 per month, but there will be no new jobs created by the consolidation, according to the PSP.

The construction of the new PSP barracks, which began in July, is just the third time ground was broken in the park since 2006, when the CCIDC installed the infrastructure. SilcoTek and Cleveland Brothers construction equipment are the two private-sector companies that operate facilities in the park. Both companies purchased their plots in 2012.

The Keystone Opportunity Zone designation

About 25 miles from the BCP, and less than 3 miles from the Philipsburg barracks, is the Moshannon Valley Regional Business Park.

The bustling 14-plot business park offers a stark contrast to its Benner Township counterpart. Only a few lots remain available for lease or purchase and in September, Stan LaFuria, Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership executive director announced that Organic Climbing LLC, a climbing and bouldering gear manufacturer will be the park’s newest tenant.

In September, LaFuria received another bit of good news when the Centre County commissioners extended the park’s Keystone Opportunity Zone designation through 2024. The designation, which is permitted under the Keystone Opportunity Improvement Zone Act of 1998, allows businesses to receive a tax credit of up to $100,000 annually for up to 10 years, at which time the zone is considered for renewal.

With the success of the MVRBP in mind and in an effort to give BCP a boost, the Centre County Board of Commissioners — then consisting of Pipe, Steve Dershem and Chris Exarchos — passed on May 1, 2012 a resolution that designated BCP as a Keystone Opportunity Expansion Zone.

“Considering its location between State College and Bellefonte, as well as the proximity to I-99, and also the economic setback from the recession, we felt that it was a good opportunity for growth,” Pipe said.

Changing hands

After selling three plots in less than one year for a total of about $2 million, according to county data and receiving a KOEZ designation for the park, CCIDC began to explore the sale of the park.

On March 11, 2013, the CCIDC arranged a meeting with local business leaders to discuss and present the sale of the remaining land holdings within the park, according to an email exchanged between CCIDC officials obtained by the Centre Daily Times.

The 2013 sale raised questions from Reps. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, and Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, and the two authored a letter to Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, asking for an audit of the potential sale. The letter claims that the CCIDC received almost $13.5 million in state grant money and an audit is necessary to be “mindful of the use of taxpayer dollars.”

“I didn’t believe then and I still don’t believe that sale was marketed correctly or marketed at all,” Conklin said. “CCIDC offered the sale and asked for a bid packet that was due in a couple of days. After that I had chamber members come to me because they were upset that they weren’t part of the process and then I asked for the sale to be looked into.”

On Dec. 18, 2013, the sale of the park was completed. I-99 LLC purchased the remaining almost 100-acres for about $2.7 million. I-99 LLC is owned by Bob Poole, of S&A Homes; Heidi Nicholas, of Nicholas Enterprises; and Paul Silvis, of SilcoTek.

“At this point, no one has come to me with any type of audit or anything that’s been done within it,” Conklin said.

The future of the park

In September, I-99 LLC made a change in real estate agents to Joe Herrle with Kissinger, Bigatel & Brower Realtors in an effort to explore different marketing angles, according to Silvis.

The lots have been reduced in price since I-99 LLC took over and are listed between $45,000 and $65,000 per acre, depending on lot size.

“Since we’ve taken control of the property, we’ve tried all sorts of things, but we can’t seem to find businesses that want to locate to the park,” Silvis said. “I’m not sure I have a crystal-clear answer why that is. The park itself is great and the infrastructure is better than any other park around, but we’re going to keep trying.”

The success of the group’s efforts to market the property could dictate the future of the KOEZ designation and ultimately determine if the PSP barracks will remain alone in the fields.

“Of course we’re always hoping for the park to have success because it can still be a strong economic driver,” Pipe said. “But I will say that when it comes up for renewal, from my perspective, I will take a look at what the success rate has been and if there hasn’t been a good success rate, we may want to redeploy that designation to other places in the county.”