An aerial tram that would take riders from the top of Flagstaff Mountain down to a Susquehanna Street landing and back isn't just a pie-in-the-sky dream, developers say. The engineering is done and they are ready to send the plans to the state for approval.
But to get the project off the ground, they need to buy or lease the air rights above a Carbon County-owned parking lot between the archives building and the domestic relations building on Susquehanna Street. The air space would be for a landing platform to be built onto the mountain, covering the parking lot and housing tickets sales, a visitors' center, shops and a cafe.
Developers had planned to buy the archives building from the county and demolish it to make way for a visitors' center. But the deal fell through when county commissioners decided it would be too expensive to build another archives building.
Developers have said the county could build underneath the landing, which would be 20 feet off the ground.
Last Thursday, Larry Masi of the Dominion Development Group, Egg Harbor, New Jersey, who is marketing the project, told the TIMES NEWS that if the county won't agree to the sale or lease, "it may kill the project."
But others in the group have said that if the county won't lease the air rights, they intend to look elsewhere.
Developers are poised to launch the project's next steps.
"We're ready for permitting from the state, and we're ready for funding," said consultant (and former county planning director) Bruce Conrad.
Financing is a major component. Masi, Conrad and Timothy R. Markley of Flagstaff Management Corporation have said state Rep./House Speaker Keith McCall is an enthusiastic supporter and that he has said he would obtain a $2.5 million state grant for the project.
A request for an interview with McCall resulted in this statement from his press secretary, Bob Caton:
"Our office is sending a letter to the developers concerning issues surrounding state funding for the project, and the Commissioners are also sending a letter concerning the practical applications of installing the tram system. Until those formal notifications arrive it would be unfair to everyone involved to discuss the project in the newspaper," Caton wrote.
The three commissioners had mixed reactions to the project, and the issues of the archives building and air rights figure prominently in their opinions.
"The commissioners took an open-minded approach toward the proposal, and even spent county funds to look into the feasibility of vacating the archives building," said commissioners Chairman William O'Gurek. "What we learned through the process is that it would cost the taxpayers a lot of money – into the millions – to relocate the archives and maintenance departments that are now located in that building."
He said that the "more we looked into the possibilities, what kept staring us in the face is the fact that there is only a limited amount of property available to meet the county's needs. So, knowing our archives department, like almost every other county office, is growing, we felt it was important to keep in mind that not only is the building valuable to us, but the parking lot next to it is as well, in case the county finds the need to expand in the future, which is very likely."
O'Gurek said the commissioners "believe it is in the county's best interest to hold on to that property. The idea of an air tram sounds intriguing, but we don't believe giving up valuable county-owned property in the heart of the county seat is practical at this point."
O'Gurek's reticence is compounded by what transpired at an August meeting of the county Redevelopment Authority.
"Beyond the practicality of things, one particular matter that concerned the commissioners is the fact Mr. Conrad went to the county's Redevelopment Authority on Aug. 19 and asked the authority to apply for $1.1-million on behalf of the county for the project, saying the project will be county-owned," O'Gurek said. "The fact that the redevelopment authority passed a motion to that effect without first checking to see if that information was accurate, is disconcerting. Mr. Conrad prepared the application himself, not the redevelopment authority and not the county, and it should not have been stated the project will be county-owned."
He said that "Carbon County has enough financial challenges, and owning and operating a multimillion tourist attraction should not be one of them. There are a multitude of questions concerning something of this magnitude. Does something like this have the ability to draw 100,000 more visitors, like the application suggests? What will that many visitors to Jim Thorpe mean with regard to the infrastructure and things like traffic congestion and parking? How do the people of Jim Thorpe feel about something like this? There are questions about air rights that need to be answered. The list of questions goes on and on," O'Gurek said.
He said the "application authorized by the redevelopment authority also competes against other applications for county projects to be funded by the Local Share Account, if approved. One of those applications is the county's, so it's pretty safe to say the county would not be in favor of an application for funds that competes against its own application."
Conrad said it was a meeting with commissioners this summer that prompted him to approach the Redevelopment Authority for money.
He said he met with commissioners this summer about the landing.
"They were emphatic that if it was on county land, they would own the land and lease it back to the project," he said. "We said fine, do you mind if we use the (Redevelopment) Authority as a vehicle? They would have to agree to fund the two pieces of the project - the platform and the actual landing site, which (would be) anchored into the bedrock in the side of the mountain."
Conrad said he then went to the Redevelopment Authority, and "they said they would consider being a sponsor."
He said the Authority asked one of its members to "confirm with the commissioners that the Authority would sponsor the project, but just those portions that would be on county land, nothing else. At least one or more of (the commissioners) understood we would potentially use Redevelopment Authority funds for the portion of the project that would be on county land."
A county official agreed with that, according to Conrad.
As for the application, Conrad said he has written grant applications for the Authority in the past. "There was no subterfuge, nothing was hidden," he said.
Conrad said the grant awards are due to be announced at the end of this month.
Meanwhile, county and local officials weighed in on the project, and the county's role in it.
"I'm not going to stand in the way of them progressing," said Commissioner Wayne Nothstein. "I think it would be a real big boost to businesses in the borough."
Commissioner Charles Getz said, "They had approached us about the archives building, and I brought it to the other commissioners about selling the (archives) building. But then we had an architect come in, and found it would cost us way too much. I myself have backed off on selling that building."
Getz also said he's "not in favor of selling them the (air) rights" over the Susquehanna Street parking lot. "That's the one place we have property," he said. Building underneath the landing "would be difficult," Getz said. "If they could build into the mountain and not affect the parking lot, that would fine."
"I wish them luck," he said. "I would love to see their tram become a reality. It would bring more tourists into the county. It would bring a lot of people into the area, no two ways about it."
Jim Thorpe Borough Council President Justin Yaich said the aerial tram is a "first class project. This is something to me that looks very fascinating. It could prove to be an asset to the town - something that's going to benefit the community."
Yaich had good words for the developers.
"They've been a pleasure to work with – they are going above and beyond to meet everything we ask of them," he said.