Purchase of PNC Building draws plenty of public comment

There was a lot to say at Wednesday’s commissioner’s meeting regarding the purchase of the PNC Bank Building.

Two of Warren County’s commissioners — Commissioner Ben Kafferlin and Commissioner Jeff Eggleston — voted in favor of the county’s loan of $450,000 and a $100,000 grant to the Warren County Development Authority (WCDA) for the purchase of the PNC Bank Building at 201 Liberty Street in downtown Warren. Commissioner Cindy Morrison was opposed.

Jim Decker, speaking for the WCDA, commented on the appropriateness of the relationship between the city, the county, and the WCDA.

“Every location in the other seven counties (where the NPRC considered setting up administrative offices) had, in some way, a similar partnership,” said Decker. “This is certainly not unique and there is a need for that sort of coordinated effort. I don’t see anything inappropriate whatsoever with the county assisting us in moving this forward. I think that the risk of the county receiving this property through default is slim to none, and it is certainly not in our expectation or anticipation that we would allow that to happen.”

Three representatives from the City of Warren were on hand to comment.

Maurice Cashman, Mayor of the City of Warren, said that he sees both the acquisition of the building and the headquartering of the NPRC there as “a very solid project.

“There are risks with everything, but it is a signature building downtown,” he said.

He stated that as more entities are able to move into the building, “that’s going to bring tax revenue to all three taxing entities: the school; the county; the city, and it will bring people downtown. What are we interested in? Revitalizing that downtown and getting more people down there.”

Rather than government interfering with private enterprise, Cashman said he sees this agreement as “government helping private enterprise. That’s a portion of what government should be doing. I’m very solid to that.”

Cashman went on to say, “here you’re getting an opportunity to expand and bring to this community and county a private essentially college that’s going to expand. It’s going to do a lot. Here we are, on the verge of doing some things that we have never done before. And I just can’t urge you enough to say we need to get behind this project.”

The building, said Cashman, was once filled with people and occupancy has dwindled as the building’s upkeep has fallen to the wayside.

“Here’s an opportunity to upgrade it and get people back into those offices,” he said.

“I can’t say that they’re going to come in droves, but they will come in time. So I urge all of you to come together in a unanimous way, in order to give this project a platform for success.”

Paul Giannini, Warren City Councilman, also spoke in favor of the agreement.

“We all saw the pictures of what’s happened to this building, so we know what happens when you have bad management,” he said. “But when you have a local entity that wants this building and wants to be part of this building, wants to take care of this building, and renew this building, that’s the best kind of landlord we can get in the City of Warren. So if these are the kind of projects that are coming to us as local officials, I don’t understand… if the WCDA needs $50,000, $100,000, $300,000, and they come to us, I don’t understand why we’re not bending ourselves over backwards to help these people, just for what (Cashman) said… to bring more people downtown. Especially, this is an historic anchor building. Too many times we just wait. We hear rumors that someone from Florida is going to buy this building and fix it up. I’ve heard that for 30 years for Pete’s sake. This is a building we can own, locally. I don’t know why we’re not doing more for these people.”

City Manager Nancy Freenock agreed with Cashman and Giannini.

“With all due respect,” said Freenock, “from what I’ve heard today it is the private sector that’s taking over this being, albeit with government help. In order for this area to survive, in my opinion, we need to let go of the lines between city and county, and city and township. We need to work collaboratively, and perhaps in ways that we’ve never entertained before. That’s how I think we’re going to survive. This building has been for sale for a number of years, from what I understand, with no takers. This is an ambitious project, and it is scary, but I think it is a step we need to take, and we need to believe in it. There were other sites that were considered, and I hope I’m not speaking out of turn but Harrisburg said ‘either you make PNC work or we’re leaving. We’re not going to stay in Warren.’ I heard that. I was part of that conversation.There were a number of other alternatives that either didn’t work for the college or the state said no.” Freenock went on to say that, “I think that this is a huge step and if we all try to work together we can make something successful. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a couple of years, but it didn’t take a couple of weeks to get in the condition that it’s in now.”

Commissioner Morrison said, after Freenock spoke, that “I am very much in favor of the college being here. Please know that. I just don’t want to be loaning money to purchase a building. I think there’s too much risk with our taxpayer’s money. I truly want to work together and make this happen, certainly. Unfortunately, politics played a role in buying this building and that’s unfortunate.”

“Sometimes you need to take a risk in order to get a reward,” was Cashman’s reply. “And I think the risk is minimal and I think the reward is enormous. And so I would encourage you as I said before I would like to see this done unanimously.” When City Council decided to allocate $640,000 of the RCAP grant to the NPRC project, Cashman said, they did so unanimously. “Because we believe in this project wholeheartedly.”

“I believe in the college. I believe in the administrative center being here. And I wish that politics hadn’t played a role and that we could’ve found a more suitable place” for the offices to be housed, Morrison answered.