|Ken Mohr and Polaris Properties rep|
Located at 2801 Emrick Boulevard in Bethlehem Township, it's a proposed 3-story, 66,375 sq ft building on 5.36 acres, with 256 parking places. Located between Freemansburg Avenue and William Penn Highway, this "one stop" human services shopping center would replace two aging county-owned buildings in Easton and Bethlehem.
The Governor Wolf Building, located at 45 N 2d St in Easton, is a 52,171 sq ft schoolhouse, built in 1893. Purchased by the County in 1986 for $912,000, it is home to 173 human services workers. It needs $3.3 million in capital repairs and improvements over the next 5-10 years.
The Martin J. Bechtel Building, located at 520 E Broad Street in Bethlehem, is a 28,000 sq ft facility, built in 1962. Purchased by the County in 1993 for $763,000, it houses 70 human services workers. It needs $1 million in capital improvements and repairs over the next 5-10 years.
The plan is to sell the Wolf and Bechtel buildings, and use the proceeds for a lease and option to purchase at Emrick Boulevard. The facility would be built by Polaris Properties by the end of 2013.
Executive John Stoffa calls it a "golden opportunity to do something terrific." He made a pitch for the 18,000 people who need to use Human Services for a host of reasons, although the Exec claimed that most of them have two problems. They;'re lonely and don't have enough money. "They don't have advocacy groups. They don't have PACs. They don't have people speaking for them," Stoffa stated in a rare speech lasting more than two sentences. "This is close to my heart," he explained.
In his first year in office, Stoffa proposed a centralized human services building, but the idea as quickly shot down by a more fractious Council more interrested in playing politics than governing.
Lamont McClure, who will undoubtedly oppose this project, was characteristically absent. But he sent his henchman, Controller Steve Barron, to warn that this is a bad idea. He passed out a memo arguing that we should follow the lead of the federal government, which has learned from experience that buying FBI buildings is better than leasing them.
Barron also claimed that the lease s "very ambiguous" and warned against going down "the road of the swap."
Ken Kraft, a Marine and former spook with some federal agency, dismissed Barron's report. "I worked for the federal government and I had to write 72 pages to get a band-aid," he joked. He chided Barron for attempting to compare FBI buildings with
human services buildings.
Kraft, along with Tom Dietrich, participated in the Committee that arrived at this proposal in a process that started last March. He and consultant Ken Mohr both explained the exhaustive process in reviewing other sites, including the Gracedale campus.
Mohr and Stoffa told Council that the Gracedale campus is not zoned properly for a centralized human services building, and that process would likely take years the County does not have because of the serious state of deterioration at the Wolf Building, where most of the Human Services are housed.
Stoffa noted that, just that day, he had to send everyone home from the Wolf building because the heating system had failed.
Patricia Himmelwright, a 28-year County employee, noted that a nurse had to stop a parent from changing diapers on a child because the building was simply too cold. She stressed that people need an environment in which they can work on their issues.
Her concerns were echoed by John Mahler, who directs the Agency on Aging. He described a ceiling that is collapsing on his staff, as well as a complete inability to use a conference room and stock room because of lead paint contamination. "It's less than an optimum place for us to work," he said.
Kathleen Kelly, who works in mental health at the Bechtel Building, claims conditions there are bad, too. "I do not feel it is a very welcoming place to our consumers," she explained.
Ross Marcus summed up the feeling of county staffers. "We can't keep kicking this can down the road," he said "We need to do something."
As strongly as Stoffa and his staff may feel, they do not make the call. That's Council's job. How do they feel?
In addition to Lamont McClure being MIA, so were lame ducks Barb Thierry and Bruce Gilbert. I know McClure opposes this, primarily because it is Stoffa's idea. I know that Ken Kraft and Tom Dietrich, who were members of the committee vetting this idea, support it.
Peg Ferraro initially had some concerns, calling the proposal "very worrisone." But she seemed genuinely moved by the staffers who talked about conditions at the Wolf and Bechtel Buildings. More importantly, she seemed to be relieved on hearing that the County appraisals for Wolf and Bechtel came in very high.
Like Ferraro, Werner was skeptical, at least at first. He complained about the triple net lease (consultant Ken Mohr says they are common), the lack of consideration of county-owned parcels (Mohr explained that they were considered) and a general "rush to judgment (Ken Kraft noted they stated to look at this last March). Like Ferraro, Werner seemed moved when Fiscal Affairs Director Doran Hammon, of all people, said this is needed.
I never would have suspected that a dry bean counter like Doran would care about the people the County serves, but he made that dark confession yesterday. He's been under Stoffa's bad influence for too long.
Scott Parsons made it clear that he supports the proposal, bt acknowledged that they are taking a risk on the sale of the Wolf and Bechtel Buildings. "We could walk out of this looking like heroes," he said. "We could look like goats. ... It all comes down to what we're going to get for those two buildings."
Apparently, a lot. Enough hints were tossed in that direction yesterday, but Council can't publicly discuss real estate negotiations without shooting themselves in the foot.
Tonight, John Stoffa will learn whether his seven year dream will come true.
Over the past few weeks, numerous "anonymous" comments have been posted here and elsewhere, with the usual personal attacks at supporters of this concept. Jim Gregory has signed his name to some of these comments. But not one of these persons crawleed out from under his rock to address Council.