The deteriorating Luzerne County juvenile detention center in Wilkes-Barre is only one example of county-owned real-estate puzzles facing county council.
The county needs a records-storage building, but the floors of the vacant detention center atop a hill along River Street near the courthouse aren’t strong enough to support the weight. The structure’s choppy, prison-like layout isn’t conducive to a records building or other county uses, officials say.
Demolishing the center and constructing a new records building is another option, but it would cost more than $3 million and require excavating several feet off the hilltop to create enough space to meet today’s zoning setbacks and fit record-delivery trucks.
Council could try to sell the property to a private developer interested in a small office building or residential structure, but the pool of potential buyers might be limited or nonexistent.
“You would have a great vista of a prison that blocks your view of the river,” county Chief Engineer Joe Gibbons said.
The final option, which has been exercised since the center closed in 2002: Do nothing.
The fate and direction of county-owned real estate is expected to be a major topic of council discussion this year, largely driven by the goal to reduce liability and get property back into private taxpaying hands.
The county owns three other vacant buildings — the former Valley Crest Nursing Home in Plains Township, the former Springbrook Water Co. in Wilkes-Barre and a building in downtown Hazleton that once housed a bank.
As many as several hundred vacant land slivers also ended up in the county’s name during the past 200 years, Gibbons said.
The county also is semi-liable for more than 700 repository properties that didn’t sell in past back-tax auctions.
In addition, county officials are wrestling with ways to stay on top of two county-owned recreational facilities — the River Common along the Susquehanna River in downtown Wilkes-Barre and the 650-acre Moon Lake Park in Plymouth Township — without draining county funds earmarked for mandated government services and more than $400 million in debt repayments.
County Manager Robert Lawton recently told council he soon will present options on county-owned property. The home-rule charter says council makes real-estate decisions, including sales.
The county has unsuccessfully tried to sell the 62.35-acre property since the private nursing-home operator moved into a new facility in 2010. The Salvation Army backed out of its plan to buy the building for $4.7 million for an adult rehabilitation center after the township refused to grant a zoning variance. No buyers surfaced when the property was put on the market a second time.
The law requires the county to seek the appraised value, or $4.136 million. If there are no offers at that amount, a prospective buyer would have to obtain an appraisal and then work with the county appraiser on a compromise.
Some county officials have expressed interest in using the property to house non-judicial offices, arguing centralizing offices would be more efficient and save on overhead. That option might require demolition and construction because the building, though structurally sound, would need millions of dollars in renovations to retrofit it for government offices.
Council can list the property for sale again or demolish the building and hold onto the land for possible county reuse or sale, Gibbons said.
The property is “ideal” for a government campus because it is centralized and near major interstates, but county officials would have to wait until finances improve, he said.
Springbrook Water Co.
The county acquired the four-story office building at 30 N. Franklin St. in 2005 in a package of former watershed property previously owned by Theta Land Corp., and two potential buyers backed out.
The county had to stabilize the roof to stop leaks two years ago and sanitized the property because homeless people had broken into the building and defecated there.
Former county commissioners Todd Vonderheid and Greg Skrepenak voted to buy the former bank building on Broad Street, Hazleton, for $700,000 to house a southern county annex that never materialized. The purchase was heavily criticized because the seller — Val-Mar Holdings — had paid $330,000 to buy the property in 2005, about two years before the county acquired it, and seemingly had done little, if any, work on the structure.
Because no buyers surfaced, the county plans to convey the property to Hazleton in exchange for the city’s forgiveness of a $290,000 lien against the county-owned Broad Street Exchange. The county has removed an addition to the building to create parking spaces.
The county acquired the Broad Street Exchange, also on Broad Street, to keep it out of a back-tax auction that would have caused the county to lose a $1.8 million community-development loan on the property. The building, which once housed the Deisroth department store, is almost fully occupied and might be sold next year when another outstanding lien expires. Sale proceeds must return to the county loan fund.
Hazleton Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi said the city will seek proposals from private entities interested in purchasing the former bank. Plans to house the city police department in the building have been scrapped because of the city’s financial struggles, he said.
The $23 million park includes a 750-seat amphitheater and river landing/fishing pier that seats thousands. The county funds maintenance of the recreational components but relies on the volunteer Riverfront Parks Committee to handle event programming and fundraising.
Obtaining sponsors to hold public and private events at the park continues to be a struggle, said Vincent Cotrone, the committee’s volunteer director. “The community was given a gift by the feds. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built this recreational amenity,” he said, “and we struggle to use it and program it properly.”
Cotrone said he understands the city and county won’t provide funding for programming because both have “money issues.”
“We do what we can with what little we have,” said Cotrone. “As a committee, we don’t have the staff or funding to program it constantly.”
The park’s fifth season event lineup will include the popular RiverFest and likely a chalk festival for children. The Irem Shrine Circus also plans to have an event at noon April 2.
But Cotrone said he is hoping other organizations and businesses will step up to sponsor concerts, events and private functions. Insurance coverage is required, and applications to have events can be obtained at riverfrontparks.org.
“We need other entities to realize this is a great venue and go ahead and use it,” Cotrone said.
Moon Lake Park
The county has budgeted about $66,000 to keep the park open daily from the first day of trout season in April through the end of October for “passive” recreational activities such as fishing, biking and hiking that don’t require the county staffing and oversight of no-longer-available swimming, camping and nature center programs.
The county is seeking a grant to install a boat launch.
County officials hope continued investment in passive activities will increase attendance enough to spark outside interest in providing more activities through a public-private partnership.
Phil Russo, who serves on county council’s new Recreational Facilities Advisory Board along with Cotrone, said he wants to find ways to beef up maintenance and repairs at Moon Lake. “It’s been let go. The infrastructure has deteriorated tremendously,” said Russo, an Exeter resident who regularly fishes at the park. “I want to keep Moon Lake on the front-burner.”
Council Chairman Tim McGinley said he looks forward to discussions on options for all county-owned property, particularly those returning property to the tax rolls. County officials must determine plans for vacant structures and recreational amenities that provide the “best benefit” to the cash-strapped county, he said.
“It’s a just a daunting task right now with our financial situation,” McGinley said.
Gibbons said he is developing a policy on how to identify the properties, publicize their availability for sale and accept purchase offers. One possibility is a public sale similar to back-tax auctions that typically draw large crowds of bidders. Most of the parcels are small and of interest only to adjacent property owners.
“We want to make sure the process is very transparent and that there’s equal opportunity for everyone to bid on property and acquire it,” he said.
Properties that didn’t sell at back-tax auctions stay in the owners’ names until they are sold, but the county is somewhat liable because the owners have walked away. Northeast Revenue Service LLC, the county’s tax-claim operator, recently assigned an employee to evaluate each of the properties to try to attract buyers. The company also plans to reach out to municipalities urging them to help market these properties.
A list of the properties, available for as low as $500 each, is posted at www.luzernecountytaxclaim.com.