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State College Borough Council Reverses Decision and Will Not Buy College Heights School

by on July 14, 2014 10:07 PM

Reversing a decision made one week ago – and less than three days before a critical deadline – State College Borough Council decided the borough will not purchase the College Heights School.

Last week, council voted 5-to-2 to purchase the school for $450,000 and then lease the property to an alliance of non-profit groups, the Collaboration of Arts, Social Services and Education, or CASE.

However, CASE President Mary DuPuis revealed to council Monday that multiple major donors were hesitant to issue funds for a leasing situation and many grants CASE intended to seek were unavailable for leased properties.

"Regrettably, CASE has decided to withdraw our request," says DuPuis.

At issue for the last six months has been the pending sale between the State College Area School District and Penn State University. The university agreed to pay the school district $400,000 for the property to house University Press offices, which the district hasn't used as a school in years. However, the borough has first right of refusal on the property, a right it has until Wednesday to exercise.

After the school district announced its intent to sell the school to Penn State, CASE also expressed interest in buying the property. The group's 11 organizations want to operate under one roof and share expenses.

Initially, CASE wanted to purchase the property from the school district. When the school district announced it was selling to Penn State, CASE went before council, where it was agreed the borough would purchase the school and lease it to CASE for at least 20 years. The intent was to make College Heights School a sort of community center offering classes and services.

After DuPuis announced Monday that CASE no longer wants to lease the school, council members Theresa Lafer and Catherine Dauler suggested the borough still purchase the property, in part to get the property back the tax roll.

Lafer says almost half of the properties in the borough are tax exempt, and "the vast majority" belong to Penn State.

"I do not see that our having this property as negative," says Lafer. "We could make this property a really nice asset," Lafer says.

However, the concept failed to earn enough support with only Lafer and Dauler backing it.

"We buy properties for one of two reasons, (when there is a) clearly set out plan for a property, or rarely, because the likelihood that something will be done for it that would be bad for the borough. ... I don't see an argument for buying the College Heights School at this point," says Morris.

Lafer also wanted to see Penn State sign a legally binding contract regarding promises the university made in an e-mail. Specifically, the university informally agreed to fix storm water issues on site, leave the signage on Atherton Street intact, and give the borough first right of refusal if it ever decides to sell the property.

"No, I do not trust any large corporation who does not and is not willing to sign something of this sort. ... I am not comfortable with saying 'oh they'll do the right thing,'" says Lafer.

Again, the majority of council disagreed with Lafer, saying if the university did not sign the contract by Wednesday – the borough's deadline for a decision on the property – the borough could be stuck with a property it doesn't want.

Still, Ford Stryker, associate vice president of Penn State's Office of Physical Plant, says his office intends to comply with the terms without a contract.

"I know you don't trust us, but from me telling you we are gong to adhere to those conditions," Stryker told council.

In April, 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.

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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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