State College

Collaboration of Arts, Social Services and Education: Group makes pitch for idle school building

Centre Daily Times

State College borough council’s decision to exercise its first right of refusal on the College Heights school building hasn’t put the issue to bed yet.

The board voted Monday to allow the building to be occupied by the Collaboration of Arts, Social Services and Education. The supported motion to acquire the property from State College Area School District is dependent on CASE signing the lease for the property as well as a memorandum of understanding between the CASE and the borough.

CASE has until July 14 to meet this agreement.

“We’re beginning to make some serious plans,” CASE President Mary Dupuis said. “We’re grateful to the council for taking this leap of faith.”

CASE still has to develop a site plan to ensure it meets the building codes, Dupuis said. It also will start determining the needs of the neighborhood.

Because the State College Area School District won’t turn the title over until the fall, she said, “we have time to get our business together.”

Several board members raised the point during Monday’s meeting that it is possible that CASE would not be able to raise the funds or secure loans needed to cover the lease and the renovations required to bring the building up to code.

Architect Fred Fernsler said at the meeting that he’d estimated that code and renovation costs could be as high as $1.5 million.

Dupuis said during the meeting that CASE had raised $200,000. She also said she thinks the cost would be closer to $500,000, an amount Penn State had estimated.

“We’ve talked to banks and private investors,” Dupuis said. “There are also some people who want to help.”

Centre Region Code Administration Director Walter Schneider, who also spoke at the meeting, said the next step once CASE has signed the lease is to work with the organization to secure a building permit. A design professional would then propose what the building would be used for, requesting a change of occupancy for the property.

According to code, the building can be classified one of two ways. If the entire building is housing only one type of activity — mercantile, business or assembly — the entire building will be classified for that activity. Most buildings Schneider deals with, he said, are mixed occupancy, allowing for several uses under one roof. The sections of the building are then broken up by fire separations.

It’s difficult to come up with cost estimates at this phase, he said. “It’s like buying a car for a family, but you don’t know anything about the family.”

Without knowing exactly what the sections of the building will be used for, it’s hard to estimate how much renovations they will need, he said.

“Honestly, I’m happy that the building is going to be reused,” Schneider said. “It’s nice to see buildings reused, that the site will be used and someone will be in it.”

Even the voices of dissent in the council are wishing good luck for CASE.

“I hope it works out,” said council member Peter Morris, who voted against the motion. “I have a lot of respect for CASE and the people involved.

“I have to say I’m still worried about it, though. We didn’t put any limits on the borough’s financial responsibility. In a worst-case scenario, if CASE can’t come up with the money for repairs and renovations, the council will have a hard decision to make.”

Morris said that, in one case, if CASE is not be able to afford the deal, the lease would be broken and CASE would have to be evicted or not allowed to occupy the property if not moved in yet.

A second option would be to allow CASE to stay but be subsidized by the borough. If that were to occur, there would have to be some understanding to what extent and how much money would be used.

Council was given a deadline of July 17 to act on the property. Due to the close deadline, Morris said, the board had to act and CASE will likely sign the lease.

Prior to the council’s actions, an agreement was in place with the school district to sell the property to Penn State.

Penn State wished the borough well in its acquisition of the building, according to an email from spokeswoman Lisa Powers. The university will continue looking for other opportunities for space, she said.