Schuylkill votes 2-1 to make offer on Giant property
An outcry from the public against the potential purchase of the former Giant in Pottsville was not enough to dissuade Schuylkill County Commissioners Wednesday from voting to authorize County Administrator Gary Bender to make an offer on the property.
By a vote of 2-1, commissioners took the action after going into executive session to discuss the topic. Commissioner Barron “Boots” Hetherington and George Halcovage Jr. voted yes. Commissioner Gary Hess voted no.
Giant closed July 9 after being in business at 500 Progress Ave. for more than 30 years.
Before the vote, Hess said he was “very, very displeased” with Hetherington and Halcovage. He was informed at 4:50 p.m. Tuesday of the item being on the agenda.
“An offer should have been put on the agenda last week,” Hess said of the work session.
He said the “last-minute move” was not a good idea.
“If the purchase goes through, how are we going to pay for it?” Hess said to Bender.
Bender said the money will come out of the general fund or they would have to borrow it. COVID-19 funds will not be used for the purchase, he said.
An appraisal was done on the property, which has not been released.
Hess said he didn’t even know the appraisal amount. He didn’t ask previously because he thought it would be given to him.
“Something is going on here that I am not aware of,” he said.
A decision has not been made on what the property will be used for if purchased, but potential uses include a warehouse for storage, more room for county employees and even a prerelease center, which would be for nonviolent offenders. Those with drug, alcohol or mental health concerns could obtain treatment at the center. The motion said the use would be “for county general purposes.”
Hetherington said the property presents an opportunity for the county.
“It’s about space and not paying rental payments,” he said.
Halcovage said as a commissioner he took an oath to “explore all opportunities that are presented for the good of the county.”
He said the “lightning speed” of the senate bill proposed by Argall, which would prohibit a fourth-class county from buying a property of a third-class city without the OK from the school district and the city if it is in an area designated for revitalization, is “unfortunate and not fair to the taxpayers of Schuylkill County.”
Halcovage said he is for revitalization, but the city has been looking at the property for 2½ years. Bender talked to the previous board about the property.
“I respect the arguments that have been presented and will continue my work with the city and other stakeholders in the revitalization of Pottsville and the county as a whole,” Halcovage said.
Argall said he was “extraordinarily disappointed” about the vote Wednesday.
“These are the kinds of disagreements that can ruin friendships after decades. I was the chairman of George’s re-election committee. I’ve been friends with “Boots” for 40 years, but the next time the commissioners ask for my help, the answer will not be an immediate yes. What the county is considering will jeopardize Pottsville’s bipartisan downtown revitalization efforts, and that’s just a 100 percent wrong.”
Asked if the disagreement ruined friendships, Argall said, “It’s getting close.”
He said the property could be “a beautiful hotel someday.”
He conceded the introduction of his bill might have caused commissioners to act.
“I am going to continue to move my legislation forward,” Argall said.
He said it is “impossible to predict at this point” if the bill will become law.
Hetherington said the potential legislation is “one of the reasons” the county voted Wednesday.
Pursuit of property
Bender said solicitor Alvin Marshall will write a letter, which Bender will sign, and likely be emailed and sent regular mail.
“He will be doing the negotiating for us, Bender said.
When asked why an informal recommendation was not made to commissioners about the property, he said, “I think the commissioners had all the information they needed to make a decision.”
Bender declined to state the appraisal amount. If the county decided to buy the property, it could take out a bond or a loan, he said.
Finance Director Paul Buber said the purchase of the building is not in the budget. He said there is a “high probability” the county would borrow the money, which should not be difficult because of the county’s AA2 rating.
Marshall didn’t have a timeline on when an offer would be made.
“If the owner doesn’t accept it, it’s moot,” he said.
Marshall said he wasn’t authorized to discuss the appraisal.
Hetherington said the appraisal will eventually be public record.
City, local representatives, state Argall and business owners have expressed opposition to the purchase. Wednesday was no different.
Savas Logothetides, executive director of the Pottsville Area Development Corporation, questioned the transparency of the board in this matter.
He said the fiscal responsibility Hetherington is claiming to advocate for is shortsighted.
“You philosophically have it backward. The potential effects of your decision will be a detriment to the city of Pottsville and the county for years to come,” he said.
He urged commissioners to let the property go for sale locally.
“Let the property be listed for sale. Give us the time - six to 12 months - to find a more suitable use. Most importantly, give us the transparency we deserve as taxpayers,” Logothetides said.
Pottsville Mayor James T. Muldowney asked the commissioners to table the decision, something Hess motioned that didn’t get a second before the vote took place. Muldowney said there are developers interested in the site.
Pottsville city council members Mark Atkinson and Dave Clews spoke against the proposed action.
“I don’t even know how to express my dismay,” Atkinson said.
He said if the property is removed from the tax rolls it will hurt the revenue of the city and taxpayers.
“I’m not sure where you see the savings here,” he said.
Diana Prosymchak, executive director of the Schuylkill County Historical Society, claimed the purchase would “kill the tourism in the city.” She implored the commissioners to “not sit in your ivory tower. Go out and look at what is going on in your county.”