CLEARFIELD – The Mill Road Social Hall public hearing drew a packed house at the Lawrence Township building Monday night.
The Lawrence Township Supervisors held a public hearing in order to hear comments regarding the consideration to apply for a grant from DCNR to determine the feasibility to purchase the Mill Road bingo hall for recreational use. This was the second of two such meetings.
Supervisor Bill Lawhead immediately opened comments up to the audience, which was not shy in voicing opinion regarding the grant application.
The first voice that was heard from was that of Randy Lemmo, who strongly opposed it. He felt the community had no unmet recreational needs in the community and that any needs that were unmet could be done so by pre-existing facilities. Lemmo said he didn’t understand how the state can fund a project like this but can’t afford to hire lifeguards. He also said the township equipment would be better served with the money or the roads could be paved.
It was at this time that Kim McCullough, the DCNR Recreation and Parks advisor, explained to the audience where the grant money is coming from and how different grants come from different pots of money. Paying lifeguards, maintaining equipment, and paving roads did not come from such a grant as this. She also explained that if Lawrence Township didn’t want this grant then other communities would apply for it, as these grants are very competitive.
McCullough explained to the audience that the township would first apply for the grant to purchase the building and then apply for other grants that would pay the salary of a hired person to run the recreation center. The audience questioned whether they township would have to reapply for such grants to which she answered every five years.
Lawrence Fire Co. 1 Fire Chief Jas Catherman said the building is currently being used for bingo once a week as well as wedding receptions. He said the social hall was built as a financing vehicle to pay for the fire hall, which has been paid off.
The social hall itself still has a debt of over $300,000. A recent appraisal, done on March 25, valued the social hall at $850,000. The fire department currently pays about $2,000 a month on the building, not including utilities. If the township purchases the building the fire department would be able to turn a profit with what it is currently used for, bingo, wedding receptions, benefit concerts, and meetings.
Catherman explained that the fire deparment would be responsible for maintaining the building as per whatever agreement is drawn up between the fire department and the Lawrence Township supervisors. An audience member questioned where the money would come from to maintain the building. Catherman said that because the building is relatively new it would not need a lot of maintenance in the near future but further down the line it would.
Another member of the audience, Paul Killion, did his own research into the matter by speaking to various offices and organizations, such as the National Recreation Park Association, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, and the YMCA’s director. Killion also opposed the purchase of the building for numerous reasons. He said the fire department is run by volunteers and one week they might have twenty and the next only have ten, making them unreliable in terms of running the facility full-time. He also said that anyone dealing with, or working with, youth would have to have background checks.
Questions of liability were posed by members of the audience to which the township solicitor, Jim Naddeo, answered that it would fall primarily to the fire department but the township would be a partner in it. Naddeo also stated that the topic of this proposed building purchase has drawn more people than any other million dollar project the township has taken on.
Engineer Chris Bohley, with Hughes Engineering, said the township is exploring whether it is feasible to turn the social hall into a community recreation center. He said possible plans or ideas might include using the ‘transformed’ social hall as a recreation center for basketball, pottery, bridge club for seniors, an indoor walking track, and craft classes, to name a few. He said the idea was for the public to provide additional use ideas or to see if the public believed it was a worthwhile venture.
The members of the audience seemed concerned with how that building and it’s recreational purpose would interfere with what the YMCA offers or what the Bayer Building, another facility owned by the township, offers. It was explained that the Mill Road building could not have a basketball court, tennis court, or climbing wall due to the ceilings being only twelve feet high. In the Bayer Building there is indoor soccer, baseball, and Starz.
Supervisor Ed Brown said that the Bayer Building is being used but could be utilized more. He also said they are not making a profit there but are almost breaking even.
A question was posed by a member of the audience regarding the application for recreation grants for the Bayer Building. It was explained that if they were to receive any grants for that building they would not be able to lease it which allows them to turn a profit. The audience was also reminded that they were not there to discuss the Bayer Building but the possibilities for the Mill Road building and it’s recreational uses if it were to be purchased.
Once the comments were closed to the audience the supervisors voted.
All three supervisors had received a majority of negative comments from the public regarding the proposed purchase. Ed Brown said, “The long-term obligations outweigh the short term goals.” He also said that community leaders which he had spoken with had voiced their negative concerns. Brown voted against the grant application.
Glenn Johnston said he had seen and heard a lot of negative comments. He felt that it was a good plan and that it would benefit the community, but in the end they should pass.
Bill Lawhead said he felt more research needed to be done and that there hasn’t been enough time. Lawhead also said there were a lot of negative comments and animosity coming from the other fire departments. Lawhead voted against it.
In the end, Johnston said, “We’ve listened to the people but fear we’ve missed an opportunity.”