The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

December 6, 2012

OUR VIEW: Smaller project demands city be watchdog of public money


---- — Downtown Sharon is in a continual struggle for relevancy. Since half of it was leveled in the 1970s to make way for a development boom that never really came and the local mills shut down one after another hard times have been about the only times it has known.

But the city has endured and remains the spiritual heart of the Shenango Valley. It is the base on which the relative prosperity of Hermitage, the small town charm of Sharpsville, and the hardscrabble authenticity of Farrell and Wheatland rest.

It’s taken a lot of hits, many of them self-inflicted. Consider the multi-million dollar, multi-generational boondoggle that is the parking garage. Consider the appalling neglect of the Columbia Theater, a historic gem that in other cities would be a showplace instead of a moldering ruin no one seems to know what to do with. Consider the housing project and public school that sit on what should be the expansive lawn of a Victorian mansion on the West Hill. Consider the visitor center that’s hidden in a parking lot on a back street. The list could on and on, but you get the picture.

Every few years someone comes along with an idea that will “revitalize” downtown. Remember when the late, great Jim Winner, whose love for Sharon was boundless if not always reciprocated, convinced local officials to have the buildings between his eponymous downtown store and the river leveled to make way for a new retail showplace?

The razing drove a few longtime businesses out of business before the grand plans were scrapped and a pre-fabricated diner was dropped into what should have been a prime piece of riverfront property. We love a good burger as much as anybody, but another eatery isn’t the kind of economic driver that the city was looking for.

Back in 2007 another band of city planners and local developers, driven by the potential for state funding, conceived more grand plans for the heart of the city. This time it was intended to cater to the needs of young professionals, students and others interested in urban renewal. We’re not quite sure who really thought  that what the city needed was a pedestrian bridge over the Shenango, but that part of the plan was wisely scrapped. The other part was a multi-story office and residential development dubbed The Lofts by Shenango Valley Associates, the local developers who came up with the idea and secured $3.5 million from the state, via the city of Sharon, to build it.

After years of anticipation from the public and stonewalling from the associates – a 50-50 partnership between longtime area developer Greg Koledin of Wesex, Inc., and Mercer County Commissioner Brian Beader – revised plans for The Lofts were finally revealed in a story in Sunday’s Herald.

To say that they were not what was expected is an understatement. The Lofts were supposed to soar over the river and provide workspace and housing for up and coming businesses, young professionals and well-heeled students. What was presented was a two-story, concrete, steel and glass office building that, while handsome enough for what it is, wouldn’t look out of place in a strip mall in Hermitage or any other locale where sprawl is the architectural theme.

Local officials, it seems, are underwhelmed by the new plan.

City Manager Scott Andrejchak described it as “substantially different”  from the one Koledin proposed and noted that a $3 million Rural Community Assistance Program grant for the project was intended to prime the pump for private investment in a $32 million downtown development. The office building that’s now proposed would be almost entirely paid for with the grant.

Andrejchak says the city is re-evaluating whether Shenango Avenue Associates should get the money or if some other project should be considered.  

“Those are state tax dollars and we want to make sure we’re good custodians of them,” Andrejchak said. Koledin and Beader disagree. That money, Koledin said, “is ours.” Beader argued that he and Koledin “were the ones that went to the state to go after money.”

Koledin will get a chance to talk directly to city officials about the project at a meeting scheduled for today.

We hope that when city council hears from him they keep in mind their chief responsibility to be good stewards of the public’s money, which, despite the developers’ claims, is what’s on the table here. We hope they consider all the good money that’s gone into, if not bad, at least ill-considered projects in the city’s history. The city needs to honor the deals it has made over the years but only if the other party holds up its end of the agreement.