Natural gas fees used for cleanup, demolition of site

Six years ago, Williamsport needed to find more affordable housing amidst the natural gas industry boom, and a vacant warehouse along Memorial Avenue was ripe for potentially that purpose.

Initially, the former Brodart warehouse at 1609 Memorial Avenue didn’t attract a nibble from industrial customers, but it was seen by Gary Silversmith, of P&L Investments, Washington, D.C., and he expressed interest in transforming the building into upscale apartments and townhouses.

Silversmith was met by William Kelly, the deputy director of the Lycoming County Department of Planning and Community Development at a “Brownfields” conference in Philadelphia.

Brownfields are industrial sites that may be cleaned up and reused for commercial or residential purposes.

A string of local and state officials who gathered at Thursday’s groundbreaking of Memorial Homes spoke of partnerships and the right timing and use of Marcellus Shale impact fee money to make Memorial Homes a reality.

They talked about partnerships such as those with the state departments of Community and Economic Development and Department of Environmental Protection and the federal EPA.

The funding stream happened under Gov. Tom Corbett, said state Sen. E. Eugene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township.

Natural gas impact fee funds available through the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Act are being returned from the state to the communities that have been impacted by the Marcellus Shale boom, he said.

“Without that combination it couldn’t have happened,” Yaw said. “The project goes to show what people can do when they put their mind together and accomplish something,” he said.

“We got a grant toward site demolition and remediation for $975,000 and that paid for about three-quarters of the cost of the $10 million project,” said John Grado, city engineer and director of community development. The local match of that grant, which was 25 percent of the cost, is derived from the city and county using natural gas impact fees and private investment from P&L Investments, he said.

Meanwhile, Memorial Homes is only one of three projects among the city’s present housing strategy, and the county remains a partner in the process.

Overall, the county has committed $610,000 toward these components, including the Brodart Neighborhood Improvement Project, including improvements for income eligible owner-occupied properties in the neighborhood through STEP Inc., and the Grove Street Commons, a 32-unit planned senior housing complex on a parcel between Grove and Almond streets, according to Commissioner Jeff Wheeland.

NRP Group of Cleveland, Ohio, a company experienced in building the apartments, will construct the apartments and townhouses while Arbor Housing and Development will manage the properties with an office on the site.

Once the apartments are built, 32 townhouses will be constructed over a period of five years and within that period two single-family dwellings will be built by the Greater Lycoming Habitat for Humanity.

Part of the city’s plan is to improve the streets in the neighborhood and provide easier, safer access to Memorial Park.

“The streetscape improvement, including lights and improvement to access West Fourth Street at a confusing corner at Beeber Street, was among the priorities identified under community planning meetings we had with neighbors,” Grado said.

There also are plans with STEP Inc. for at least 150 homeowners in the neighborhood, who are income eligible, to receive assistance toward their home building improvements, according to Kelly.

While the bricks couldn’t speak out, if they could, they might also have chatted about the site’s unique industrial history.

Once home to the Stearns Silk Mill, built in 1892, decades later it became the operations of the Brodart Co. in 1970 at 1609 Memorial Ave.

Since 2011, the building has been vacant, but was used for years as a warehouse by the book and furniture industry.