A dream crumbles
CHRIS PARKER The former Panther Valley Middle School's main entrance on Bertsch Street.
One sunny June day in 2009, Adam Webber proudly showed a visitor through the massive former Panther Valley Middle School on Bertsch Street in Lansford. Webber envisioned a thriving community center in the three-story, 16,176 square-foot building, which he had purchased from the school district for $150 a couple of months earlier.
Now, almost to the day four years later, Webber has essentially abandoned the building he once saw as the potential jewel of Lansford.
He is two years and $166,937.83 behind on his property tax payments for the building and an adjoining lot, which are scheduled for tax sale on Sept. 20, according to the Carbon County Tax Claim Bureau.
With the sale looming, Webber is also faced with a series of building code complaints, including failing to repair broken and missing windows, and violations concerning the roof, interior and safety. A hearing on the complaints is schedule for 2:30 p.m. June 27 before District Judge Casimir Kosciolek of Lansford.
Meanwhile, Webber has been removing metal from the building, including the old wrought iron fence that for decades surrounded the school.
Efforts to reach Webber for response have been unsuccessful. He has not returned email messages, and his cell phone voice mailbox is full, so messages cannot be left for him.
Built to last
The school was built in 1916 as the Lansford High School. Spanning the distance between Bertsch and Patterson streets, it included a public library with a separate entrance on the Bertsch Street side; a gym, a lunchroom, offices and many classrooms.
Broad concrete steps, with black, wrought iron lamp posts at the top, welcomed students. The floors were hardwood, the ceilings high, and the windows large to let in sunlight and fresh air. Graceful wood trim and wainscoting accented the rooms. The roof was bordered with decorative concrete Roman-revivalist parapets.
"It stands on the site where an old hotel and early school house once stood. Well-known local band leader Thomas (Pop) Dorsey was the band director there for many years. He has two famous sons, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, who became famous musicians and band leaders during the Big Band era. The family lived on Abbott St. in Lansford," said Dale Freudenberger, secretary of the Lansford Historical Society.
A twisting path
In 1964, the Panther Valley School District was formed, uniting the boroughs of Lansford with Summit Hill, Coaldale and Nesquehoning. A new joint high school was built along Route 209 between Lansford and Nesquehoning. The school district converted the former Lansford High School into the Panther Valley Middle School.
But maintaining and heating the massive, aging building soon became a financial drain.
In September 1989, concrete blocks weighing several tons fell from the school's roof border, crashing through four stories of scaffolding and mangling a wrought-iron fence on the ground. Students were kept away until the building was made safe again.
In May 2007, the school board agreed to close the building and build a new middle school behind the high school.
In July 2007, Lansford council agreed to accept the building, with plans to house offices. In August 2007, the district closed the building.
From there, the building's fate was in limbo.
A developer for the Rite Aid drugstore chain was interested in the property. The chain would have demolished the school to build a drugstore.
But by January, 2008, Rite Aid officials decided the site was too small, and dropped the plan.
Finally, the school board in Sept. 2008 agreed to give the building to the borough after council threatened to take the matter to the courts.
But a month later, council began having second thoughts due to concerns about the downward economic spiral and the building's deterioration. A stalemate ensued, and the school board on Jan. 15 voted to seek bids for the building's sale. School directors at a Building and Grounds Committee meeting Jan. 12 said they would take steps to demolish the building if it wasn't sold.
Early in 2009, the borough again considered acquiring the building. Webber attended a public meeting called in Feb. 2009 to survey residents' opinions on the matter. He urged council to move fast to acquire the building and then seek grants to refurbish it. Volunteers could be rallied to help repair the building, and Webber offered his own time and expertise.
Council eventually decided against acquiring the old school, and the district offered it to the highest bidder.
That was Webber, who paid $150 for the building in March 2009. It was the only bid.
Webber was enthusiastic about his venture. He successfully sought Keystone Opportunity Zone status for the building in July 2009.
"I believe that the old Panther Valley Middle School building should last another 93 years, while serving in, if not facilitating, Lansford's rebirth," he said in June 2009.
But his bright vision of a bustling building filled with offices and fledgling businesses began to crumble like old plaster.
Webber who would be elected to borough council in Nov. 2010, only to resign two years later was unable to rally the volunteers he had hoped would help him fix the roof and restore the building.
Council's once enthusiastic support for the project dwindled.
The beginning of the end came when the KOZ status ended, and he was unable to convince the Carbon County Assessment Appeals Board to reduce the assessed value.
For awhile, Webber kept up. But the building deteriorated faster than one man could repair it.
Webber has moved away from Lansford to McAdoo.
Now, weeds sprout from around steps. The bulbs on the once-elegant lamp posts are broken. The wrought iron fence is gone, and no trespassing signs warn people to stay off the property.
Webber was successful in selling an adjacent lot for $15,000 to American Fire Co. No. 1, which is building a new fire station.
Chris Ondrus, a borough police officer and president of a community improvement group called Lansford Alive, is concerned, and angry, about the building's deterioration.
"Everybody talks about all of the problems in town, and that's one of the biggest. It's falling down in front of our faces because everything is being taken out. Who's going to want to buy that property with all the copper wiring and things gone?" he said. "This is another white elephant the borough is stuck with, and he's up in McAdoo laughing at us."
Councilman Tommy Vadyak is furious with the local governments that sold Webber the school, encouraged him to buy it, and agreed to the tax-free status.
"The Panther Valley school board, should be held accountable for this because they sold it to him for $150, with no plan in place," he said.
"I feel that the members of the school board who were there at that time should be held accountable. The taxing bodies that gave him the KOZ Lansford borough, the school board, and Carbon County commissioners should also be held accountable," Vadyak said.
Council president Rosemary Cannon is saddened, but not surprised, by the turn of events.
"I think I saw the handwriting on the wall when it was purchased. I had a feeling that's how it was going to end up," she said. "It's a shame. I hope it doesn't just sit and become another one of the abandoned buildings with broken windows that we have in town."