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County in danger of losing $4 million in grant money

Published August 30. 2013 05:00PM

Carbon County officials are hoping to retain a $1 million grant earmarked for the proposed Packerton Yards Business Park. If the grant is lost, the county is at risk of losing an additional $3 million in funds.

During the county commissioners' meeting on Thursday, the board voted 2-1 to adopt a resolution acknowledging construction costs for the proposed industrial development of the 59-acre plot that straddles Mahoning Township and Lehighton.

Commissioner Thomas J. Gerhard, who earlier this year voiced that he is no longer in favor of pursuing the development because it was spending too much taxpayer money, cast the sole "no" vote.

Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, chairman, who for years was against the project that Commissioner William O'Gurek and former Commissioner Charles Getz envisioned over a decade ago, said that the motion was because the county is in jeopardy of losing over $4 million in state and federal funding for the estimated $4.7 million project because of delays with breaking ground.

Nothstein's reasoning for now backing the project is because he wants to get the land ready so the county can sell the property, which was the platform he and Gerhard proposed during the 2011 election.

The holdup in the development is because the county is currently embroiled in a court battle with Mahoning Township over being allowed to construct a road on the property. The case is in Commonwealth Court after the commissioners appealed Carbon County Judge Joseph Matika's decision, denying the county and affirming Mahoning Township supervisors' decision to not approve Carbon's land development proposal, which included building a county road into the property. Arguments are slated for Sept. 13, and the county hopes a decision will be handed down by the end of the year.

O'Gurek added that the action yesterday was because right now the county "is trying to keep the balls in the air to keep this project alive."

"We are at risk of losing the second component of the total package of funds that were leveraged," O'Gurek said. "We received $1 million from the Economic Development Administration for this project and they indicated to us that they will terminate this contract for cause, meaning we didn't spend it, unless we can show them differently."

He said that the commissioners asked the EDA to reconsider and they said if the county can show that support is still there for the project, they may extend the deadline for the funding instead of terminating it. The $1 million EDA funding matches a $2 million grant from the governor's office and $1 million in local share money from the Commonwealth Finance Agency.

The county is already losing $118,800 in funding from another EDA grant that was secured by former Congressman Paul Kanjorski.

The board enlisted the help of Congressman Matthew Cartwright, who called a meeting with the commissioners. Attending, in addition to Cartwright's office, were representatives from the governor's office, U.S. Sens. Patrick Toomey's and Robert Casey's offices, state Rep. Doyle Heffley's office; state Sen. John Yudichak's office, the Commonwealth Finance Agency, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The county has also received letters of support from the Northeast Pennsylvania Alliance; as well as Norfolk Southern; Reading, Blue Mountain and Northern; and Carbon and Schuylkill railroads.

"How can all those people see the merit in this project coming to fruition and someone who votes against it (Mahoning Township supervisors) not see the merits, not only for the county but their own township." O'Gurek said. "There will be hundreds of jobs created if this comes to fruition, which would be millions of dollars dumped into the economy to make Carbon County stronger. Everyone except Mahoning Township seems to be on board with this and our package to the EDA will reflect that.

"This is a sad day when that happens, especially in a township that received so much from the county and state and they can't see the wisdom of the people who are making a $5 million commitment to Carbon County, to say 'we don't want that in our township.'

"Five million dollars doesn't come around very easily anymore for projects, especially in a county that's second or third in the state in unemployment. We have an opportunity to create some jobs by having those parcels prepared and made ready for private industry to take over and it's being held up by one decision," O'Gurek added.

Gerhard also voiced his feelings, saying that the county tried, but it is costing taxpayers too much money.

"We dumped all kinds of money into the project," he said, citing over $500,000 in engineering fees, as well as attorney fees.

"These are all things that cost the taxpayers. When we came on board our primary intentions were to sell this. At first I thought let's put time and effort into this and see if we can get this road in so we can either sell it or develop it, and that didn't take place. I definitely support economic development. I want to bring jobs into the county because I hate seeing the unemployment rate so high, but this (project) just didn't work out."

The county will now send the EDA its packet on the status of the project; as well as the letters supporting it. The EDA will then render a decision in approximately a month on whether it will extend the deadline or terminate the contract with the county for the $1 million.

"We need the EDA to say yes, they'll keep their money in the pot," O'Gurek said. "Everyone else is saying yes they are committed. If we let this go and Commonwealth Court rules in our favor then we can say we can put the road in, but oh, they took the money back. We're trying to keep the money alive."

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