State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Penn State Facility Plan Panned in Ferguson Township

on July 18, 2011 6:43 AM

Something fairly unusual happened in Happy Valley Officialdom last week:

Someone -- well, several people -- said no to Penn State.

Not a "maybe." Not an ambiguous "perhaps." Just a full-throated, unambiguous "no."

It happened in that relatively rogue Centre Region municipality, Ferguson Township. There, a strong majority of the township Planning Commission refused to endorse the university's desire to turn the former Kissell Motorsports building, 1445 W. College Ave., into a maintenance, office and retail facility beside the Penn State golf courses.

Penn State bought the former Kissell property -- some 1.3 acres -- for $2.6 million in May 2010.  The university has yet to announce exactly what it wants to do with the land in the long term.

Likewise for the other big chunks of West College Avenue-area property it's been snatching up the last few years. (Hello, West End Manifest Destiny.)

The immediate Penn State vision for the old Kissell building -- to make it a golf-course maintenance-and-retail hub -- would reflect just a temporary use of that land, the university has told township officials.

But when the Planning Commission asked "how long 'temporary' is, they (Penn State) couldn't give us an answer," commission member Marc McMaster said Friday.

Penn State, reached by StateCollege.com last week, declined to comment on its plans for the former Kissell property. Through a spokeswoman, the university indicated it was waiting to hear the Planning Commission's formal recommendation.

That recommendation, supported overwhelmingly by commission members, is that Penn State should back off.

The core issue, township officials said, is zoning. Back in February, the township supervisors agreed to create a "terraced street-scape district" along that stretch of West College Avenue. Its goal is, in large part, to foster a pedestrian-driven culture, street-level businesses and the like.

"I think this is an excellent approach," Daniel Sieminski, the university's associate vice president for finance and business, said when the zoning passed. He said he thought the new zoning would inspire "good development -- if and when it occurs."

But Penn State's "temporary" vision for the former Kissell property wouldn't conform to the new zoning standards. That means the university will need conditional-use approval from the township supervisors if the plan is to advance.

McMaster said the university's wish for retail and office space in the former Kissell building would work just fine under the street-scape-district zoning. What's problematic is, the overall concept would turn more than half the building over to maintenance and storage functions, he said.

"They basically were going to have a full-on maintenance facility," McMaster said. Speaking only for himself, he said that "I want to make sure that we're (guiding this zoning district) correctly. We developed this zone for a reason."

The Planning Commission can't make any final rulings, though. Rather, it serves the township supervisors in an advisory capacity.

For their part, the supervisors are scheduled to take up, on Aug. 1, the Planning Commission's recommendation for the former Kissell property. At their meeting that evening, the supervisors also will hold a public hearing on the issue and may render an official decision, too.

But if you ask me, the real story here -- as much as anything else -- is that a piece of Happy Valley Officialdom has already said no to a Penn State initiative.

Just -- no.

In this town -- this company town -- no is a story. No is a statement. No holds power.

No has consequences.

Stay tuned.

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