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Penn State and Community Arts Group Make Case for College Heights School

by on April 07, 2014 10:04 PM

Penn State University officials and leaders of a community arts group made pitches before State College Borough Council Monday night outlining their visions for the College Heights School.

The State College Area School district currently owns the building and has an agreement to sell it to Penn State for $400,000. The borough's has first right to refusal on the school property, meaning the borough can elect to buy the property putting a stop to the sale to Penn State.

As part of the borough's decision making process, council invited representatives from Penn State and the Collaboration for Arts, Social Services and Education (CASE) to Monday's meeting to present their visions for the site.

Deb Howard, director of facilities and resource planning at Penn State, told council the building will be solely office space for University Press. The non-profit press does not print books on site. It has roughly 30 employees and operates from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an occasional event, such as a book signing, after hours.

The building also has many issues due to its age, such as asbestos, radon, inadequate insulation and more. Howard says the university will spend roughly $600,000 on renovations immediately and then another $1 million over time. The agreement with the school district also includes a clause for Penn State to not sell or lease the property to another K-12 institution for 20 years, which would create competition for the school district.

Mary Dupuis, president of CASE, says the organization has been looking for office space for roughly 10 years and would like to see College Heights become a sort of community center with art classes, cooking classes, meeting rooms and other community outreach programs. Part of the plan also includes leasing office space to art and literacy organizations.

John Arrington, the group's financial advisor, says the group has raised roughly $200,000 for the project and several members have expressed interest in leasing space. Additionally, he says the group can pursue foundations and grants for additional funding.

Council is expected to review the proposals over the next several weeks before making a final decision on the College Heights property.

The district notified the borough in January of the pending sale, which started a six-month countdown for council to decide if it wants to exercise its right to take ownership of the property.

The school board has said the building was not on the market, but receives periodic inquiries from prospective purchasers and has provided tours of the property to all potential buyers.

The College Heights School was built in 1931 and was once an elementary school. Most recently it has been used as office space. The property, located at 721 N Atherton St., includes a 14,000 square-foot structure on two acres.

Some council members have questioned how the school board has handled the sale – by selecting Penn State outright as opposed to accepting bids for the process. Councilwoman Theresa Lafer raised those concerns again Monday night.

Lafer says there was at least one party who wanted to make an offer on College Heights, but school officials did not allow the party to make an offer. While Lafer says she doesn't believe school officials "went out and did anything flagrantly illegal" she still questioned the process.

"I do think that it was done behind closed doors ... in this community we have run into a lot of trouble when things are done behind closed doors in the last few years," says Lafer.

Scott Etter, solicitor for the school district, told Lafer the school district never prevented an interested party from making an offer on the property.

"We're not aware of anyone being told we're not accepting bids," he says.

Etter also noted that the district has several legal options when it comes to selling a school -- sealed bids, auction or a negotiated private sale. In this case, the district selected a negotiated private sale, the same route the district took when it sold Boalsburg Elementary School to Saint Joseph's Catholic Academy.

If the borough refuses the option to purchase the building, the next step for the school district is to file a petition with Centre County Common Pleas Court to approve the sale. During the process, anyone who challenges Penn State's $400,000 offer as fair can raise those concerns through testimony, Etter says.

In other news, council approved an ordinance Monday that backs the Redevelopment Authority's $5 million line of credit to support a home ownership initiative.

With a unanimous vote, council agreed to provide collateral for the line of credit that will allow the RDA to buy and resell properties within a half-mile of University Park to diversify neighborhoods and expand opportunities for home ownership through the Homestead Investment Program.

The goal of the program is to obtain student homes and other rentals by converting them back into owner-occupied housing. The RDA will buy the homes through the open market and then resell them after creating restrictive covenants on the requiring owner occupancy. Secondly, the program is designed to ultimately tackle affordable housing opportunities for owner-occupied and rental units.

"I feel this is a very important program," says Councilman Evan Myers. "I think it will help preserve neighborhoods and help boost affordable housing in the borough."

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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