Carbon County commissioners voted 2-1 Thursday to extend for one year the deadlines for $1.2 million in government grants to help pay for development of the Packerton Yards Business Park, an action that prompted a spirited but civil debate between two members.
Commissioners William O'Gurek and Chairman Wayne Nothstein voted in favor of applying to extend the deadline for the two Local Share grants to June 30, 2014. Commissioner Vice Chairman Thomas J. Gerhard opposed.
The action came as the county waits for the Commonwealth Court to rule on its appeal of a county court decision that denied the county's petition for authorization to build a county road at the site. The county has also appealed Mahoning Township's denial of the county's subdivision plans for Packerton.
After the vote, O'Gurek expressed appreciation to Nothstein for casting the deciding vote in favor of the extensions, and explained the project to the dozens of high school students who packed the meeting room for Student Government Day.
"The only thing that has been holding the county back is approval from Mahoning Township or permission from the Commonwealth Court to put a county road off Route 209 and into the park," he said.
The grant money comes from gambling proceeds at Mt. Airy casino. Further, former Gov. Ed Rendell also allocated up to $2 million in matching funds, called an RCAP grant, for the project.
Gerhard's opposing vote "absolutely disappoints me," O'Gurek said.
The money, he said "represents the county's hope to continue development of the Packerton project." He told the visiting students, "What this vote represents is not giving up. And isn't that what life's all about? Whether it's an athletic event or an academic endeavor, or things that you're going to encounter all of your lives, the message should be always clear to you, to never give up."
O'Gurek said the project would bring needed jobs to the area, which is burdened by a 11.6 percent unemployment rate.
Gerhard defended his vote.
"I think good government is about disagreeing, working things through, and coming up with the best solution," he said.
He said the project was begun "with good intentions."
"They bought the Packerton Yards anticipating some industrial development, and bringing jobs into the county," Gerhard said.
But, he said, despite the high hopes, the county has yet to obtain the needed Highway Occupancy Permit to complete the project.
"That didn't happen. We've had opposition from the Mahoning Township supervisors," he said.
Instead, Gerhard said, he wants to give the grant to a privately owned business in Palmerton.
"I'm looking into the possibility of taking this grant money, and moving it down to Palmerton, to the old New Jersey Zinc plant," he said.
Gerhard talked about businessman George Petrole, who is also planning an industrial park, the North Face East project.
"This is a 130-acre brownfield that they are looking to develop. Right now, George anticipates the point of access permit into the project, off Route 248," Gerhard said. "They are looking to start construction in the spring of 2014.
"So that today is the reason for my 'no' vote," he said. "I have nothing against my fellow commissioners. I commend these two gentlemen. There are a lot of days we agree, and then there are certain days we don't agree."
That elicited a response from O'Gurek that taxpayer dollars should not be given to private businesses.
"What you just proposed was to take $1.2 million of state monies, and give it to a private business," he said. "I just ask you to think about that. There are a lot of businesses in Carbon County that would like to say, 'why don't you give me some of that?'. You are proposing to give $1.2 million to someone who privately owns a property on Route 248? I wish you would just think about that."
Later, Nothstein said the whole matter could be moot, pending the outcome of the court appeal and the grant extension application.
"I certainly wish the people in Mahoning would be as supportive of the project like the people of Palmerton Borough have been supportive of the (NJZ property project). If the court fails to rule in the county's favor, or if the county does not get the grants, we're done," he said
The 59-acre Packerton Business Park project is mostly in Mahoning Township, overlapping a bit into Lehighton.
Mahoning Township supervisors in August refused to approve the county's subdivision plans because the township wants the county to install sidewalks along the proposed access road into the park. The commissioners have appealed the decision to county court.
In regard to the county's petition to open a county road, the court on Jan. 18 ruled in the township's favor.
That ruling, handed down by Judge Joseph Matika, could cost the county millions of dollars in grants for the project. The ruling stemmed from Mahoning Township supervisors' opposition to the county road petition. The supervisors argued the plans failed to comply with the township's subdivision and land use ordinance.
In its petition, the county offered to "take over and relocate 'Packerton Hollow Lane' from Mahoning Township."
Nothstein and O'Gurek on Jan. 31 appealed the county court ruling to Commonwealth Court. Gerhard was absent for that vote. Commonwealth Court has yet to rule.
The county embarked on the Packerton Yards Industrial park project in 2002. In 2005, the county used $350,000 in state grants to buy the land, along Packerton Drive. Commissioners have since secured over $5 million in grant money to fund the project.
The project calls for developing seven parcels for industrial purposes, which they believe could create hundreds of jobs.