Carbon County could lose $5.1 million in grants if Packerton Yards is sold, officials report.
During the county commissioners' meeting on Thursday, the board discussed the unknown future of the 59-acre site that straddles Mahoning Township and Lehighton. The current majority commissioners, William O'Gurek and Charles Getz, purchased the land in February 2005 with the plan to industrialize the site and bring jobs into the county. Since then, studies have been completed, permits have been getting acquired and millions in funding has been secured for the remediation of the site.
But the plans may change as a result of the General Election earlier this month. O'Gurek was defeated by Republican candidate Tom J. Gerhard. Both Gerhard and Commissioner Wayne Nothstein have voiced their desire to sell the land.
Nothstein said yesterday that he and Gerhard plan to meet with Dawn Ferrante, director of the Carbon County Economic Development office, to see what they have to do next.
"It's not going to be easy to move that property for several reasons," Nothstein said. "The economy, access issues are there."
Getz referenced two fliers that were circulated by the state for Gerhard and Nothstein's campaign. The fliers said to sell Packerton Yards and that $5 million of taxpayers' money was being wasted on the project.
"It said that $5 million of tax money was down the drain," he said. "I don't know where it went down the drain but that's what it said."
Nothstein said that it is still his intent to sell the property.
"How we have to do it is yet to be determined," he explained. "We have to figure out how to get it back into the hands of the people and businesses and back on the tax rolls."
O'Gurek also pointed out that if the new majority commissioners, who will officially take control in January, sell Packerton Yards, they must return the $5.1 million in grants because they were allocated for the project and cannot be used for other projects.
"It's not going to be something that can wait 30 years to be decided and Commissioner Getz is right," he said. "Selling Packerton Yards comes with an expense and I don't know what the decision will be, but I can tell you that if the new administration decides to stop the development of the Packerton Yards Industrial Park, at risk will be $5.1 million in grant monies.
"The second part of the whole thing is, in my opinion, there is not one industry in America that is going to buy that property and invest the $5.1 million to get that property ready," O'Gurek continued. "The only way that Packerton Yards Industrial Park becomes feasible is if the county proceeds with the project and spends the grant money because no business is going to buy it and put the money out there that needs to be put out there to make it shovel ready."
"I don't know if Tom Gerhard understands the grant process," Getz added. "If you get grants to put a new wall up, you can't say we're going to go out and do the parking lot. You can't take grant money and use it for another project. Grant money doesn't work that way."
Nothstein responded, saying that he has had issues with the project from the start.
"My opposition right from the start was the location of that property," he said. "It is just bad access. The environmental issue and the issue of access onto that property is what held that project up over the years. That's why I was opposed to it."
Nothstein added that there had been a "For sale" sign put on Packerton Yards in the past, after the current board took possession of it.
O'Gurek responded, saying that he didn't recall that, adding that before the county purchased the land, the property sat for sale for nearly three decades.
"It sat there for 30 years and no one purchased it," O'Gurek said. "The reason why it hasn't been sold yet is because it needs to be remediated and we're in the process of remediating it. Stopping the project now means it goes back to square one and sits there another 30 years."
O'Gurek also noted that in addition to the $5.1 million being in jeopardy, the county may lose the $500,000 that it has already invested in preparation work for the project.
"When you give back $5 million, you also give back the opportunity that awaits us to recover the money that we have spent already," he said.
Nothstein asked if that money used was county money or grant money.
O'Gurek said county, but would be reimbursed through grants as the project proceeds.
Robert Crampsie, county controller, explained that the county invested $1 million to date on the preparation of the site, but was reimbursed $500,000 through grants.
"There is $500,000 hanging out there that is contingent upon grant reimbursement," he said, "but the grant reimbursement is contingent upon the project continuing."
Getz clarified that if the project came to fruition, the county would not have put any county money out for the project because of the reimbursements.
Nothstein pointed out that the grants may also be in jeopardy if the project continues to be delayed by permits and possible approvals.
Getz said that at the debate before the election, Gerhard said that he would be able to obtain the highway occupancy permit, that the current board has been working on for years, in three months.
"Let's see if he could do it," Getz said. "If it can then we'll know that it was just politics being played to stop this administration from moving forward."
O'Gurek said that he wanted this to be made clear, because he felt it wouldn't be pointed out when the permit was finally obtained.
"We worked long and hard on that highway occupancy permit and when I say we, I don't mean Bill O'Gurek, I mean our engineers and economic development director. We met with PennDOT," he said. "We had a lot of effort put into getting that permit and if you remember prior to the election, there was a submission of a plan for a highway occupancy permit that I had made public and indicated that PennDOT had indicated to us that they are now satisfied and comfortable with the plan that we were going to finalize and submit.
"They wanted us to cut the rock embankment back and then they waived on that. Then they wanted us to build the shoulders up on the other side of the road and they got away from that. We did a different traffic study there and that study came back less, which reduced the sight distance required for proper permitting," O'Gurek continued. "We worked long and hard on that and that application is in the hands of PennDOT as we speak. I want the public to know that if and when that permit gets granted, it isn't because Tom Gerhard said he can get a highway occupancy permit in three months. We worked longer than three months and he's mistaken and whether it's that he didn't have the facts or for a different reason I don't know, but when it comes in either December or January, it's not because Tom Gerhard got it. It's because we worked long and hard on that application.
"I don't want anyone raising and cheering and proclaiming victory in December or January for having obtained that permit, when our people were in place working for years on that project and have it right now on the doorstep of approval."
The Packerton Yards Industrial Park project has been in the works since 2003, when O'Gurek and Getz began the plan to purchase the 59-acre site and create an industrial park for businesses.
Since then, the county has secured state and federal funding for the development project, but had not been able to begin preparing the site to date because approval from Mahoning Township; as well as obtaining a highway occupancy permit from PennDOT were still needed.