By Keith Gushard and Pat Bywater
Crawford County government has spent nearly $1 million over the past 14 months on a property and building it is not sure it will ever use and that would cost many millions more to renovate.
Those simple facts have enraged more than a few county taxpayers, but current Crawford County Board of Commissioners Chairman Francis Weiderspahn is unruffled by the upset. The situation is no reflection on the current board, he maintains, and he says the effort to determine what to do with the former Talon manufacturing facility on Arch Street is moving forward at an acceptable pace.
Controversy has surrounded the county’s acquisition of the property from the start. The previous board of commissioners at public meetings entered into several options to buy the site, citing the possibility of using it to expand courthouse offices they claimed were overcrowded and outdated. Then, on Feb. 28, 2011, without presenting a plan to the public or announcing a meeting to discuss the matter, the commissioners exercised the option to buy the building. After the Tribune raised questions about the legality of the commissioners entering into a contract without a formal public meeting or vote, the three retroactively and unanimously voted to purchase the property March 3, 2011, at a public meeting.
At the time, Commissioner Chairman Morris Waid and Commissioner Jack Preston, who had previously announced their intention to retire, and Commissioner Sherman Allen, who was successful in his re-election bid and remains a commissioner today, said they were not sure the county would use the building but that they wanted to secure the site and undertake a study.
Many criticized this move as the Meadville Redevelopment Authority had unsuccessfully sought a buyer for the site for many years and the last private owner failed, handing the property back to the authority.
Next the county hired the Weber, Murphy, Fox engineering and design firm to come up with several alternatives for courthouse expansion, including use of the Talon site, expanding the current courthouse, splitting between the two and building at a new site.
A Community Advisory Committee of unpaid volunteers was appointed by the former board of commissioners to study the options and make a recommendation. Ultimately, the CAC recommended renovating the Talon site and splitting county government operations between there and the current courthouse on Diamond Park at a projected cost of $25.3 million. The CAC took its recommendation on the road for a series of public presentations that ended in late March 2012.
Since then, Weiderspahn said, county department heads have been assessing the plans and providing feedback, and the commissioners have been meeting with representatives of Weber, Murphy, Fox to revise plans for Talon.
The current Board of Commissioners, with the exception of Allen, had no say in the purchase of Talon, inheriting the site after taking office in January. Weiderspahn points out that the matter has been in the hands of the current commissioners only since the CAC completed its public presentations in March, and that time must be allowed for further work on a final plan for consideration. “We’re trying to explore every avenue,” to build a workable and financially feasible plan, he said. “We’re doing due diligence and covering all the bases.”
Current work at the site — demolition of a building considered unusable — is on schedule, he said.
At this point Weiderspahn believes a final proposal will be put to a vote in July. He has pledged to make the process public and to provide an opportunity for the public to review and comment on the plan before the commissioners cast their deciding vote.
Where’s the money coming from?
Money to pay for the Talon project so far has come from a $5.5 million borrowing approved by the previous board of county commissioners in December 2010. Some $1.688 million of the borrowing was to purchase and begin renovations to the Talon property; along with $2.42 million to refinance a 1999 county bond issue; and $1 million toward general operations.
Talon balance sheet
Expenses from 2011 to May 31, 2012
$250,000 purchase price
$39,441.35 reimbursement of 2009 and 2010 county real estate tax to previous owner
$57.50 deed recording fee
$252,737.43 on architectural consultant
$451,657.78 in operating costs
Income from 2011 to May 31, 2012
$88,283.89 in rent