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Invalid lease for Transit space under review by mayor

KAREN VIBERT-KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Trade and Transit Center I in Williamsport.

As the city considers relocating from City Hall to perhaps the third floor of Trade and Transit Centre I, the city administration has come upon a couple of issues.

The Community Theatre League’s time allowable in the third-floor office space at 100 W. Third St. expires Dec. 31, according to city Solicitor Norman Lubin.

Further, Mayor Derek Slaughter claims the five-year lease between the theater league and the city was not properly reviewed in 2016. The league expanded into the third floor after the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce moved from the building to a former bank building at West Fourth and Pine streets back then.

“Someone dropped the ball,” he said, unable to identify who that was specifically because, he said, he was not in city government then. Slaughter was elected to City Council and served two years before being elected as mayor last year.

“The lease didn’t get approved by City Council, by city solicitors, the state Department of Transportation and Federal Transportation Administration,” Slaughter said.

The state and federal transportation agencies have to approve any leases, or changes to a lease, because the building was constructed in 1999 using state and federal transportation dollars, Slaughter said.

Paul Young, a fan of the Community Theatre League, recently started a petition drive after he read about the third floor option of City Hall offices that was reviewed by City Council’s ad hoc City Hall building committee.

“So far, there are more than 1,500 people who signed a petition who want to take part in any discussion regarding the third floor of the building,” Young said.

“There is no assurances that the third floor will not be used in the way that was shown in the floor plans for the city,” he said.

“We are hopeful the city will renew the lease that is ending on January,” said Seth Sponhouse, executive director of the Community Theatre League. “If the city chooses to evict us from the third-floor space, it would be cataclysmically devastating to our educational programming.”

The space the city is eyeing is being used in a number of ways, including a Community Academy of Stage and Theatre, the Jason J. Moyer Studio Theatre, vocal studios, the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania Sensory Room, administrative offices, conference rooms, rehearsal space for special needs programming and multiple classrooms for after-school classes, summer camps, and School Day Theatre Camp, Sponhouse said. He added that he was aware of vacant space that might be available in the second floor.

Meanwhile, the city sketch showed the committee the building’s third-floor space renovated for use for the mayor, his assistant, finance director, community development, city clerk, controller, codes department, human resources director, and fire chief and fire office manager. There would be receptionist in the lobby and the city treasurer would be in the corner part of the building closer to Pine Street, under the proposal.

Joseph Gerardi, city codes administrator, who drafted the plans with Jon Sander, city engineer, said the theater would remain on the first floor as it has a lease that is good for another 29 years. The second floor could become offices or theater-related space, Gerardi said. “That’s up to the adminstration, council and CTL,” he said.

The third-floor plan upsets the league, Young said.

“All the after-school and daily educational programs will end for the community,” Young said. The petition is on change.org and Young hopes to gather public support, he said.

The city’s consideration of the site for administrative offices came about while seeking a location that is cost-effective and complies with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act for accessibility, he said.

The building was designed and constructed in 1999-2000 as a central downtown location for River Valley Transit.

The building became the headquarters for the Williamsport Chamber of Commerce until 2015, which occupied the second and third floors, according to Jason Fink, chamber president and executive director.

The facility also provided a hub for buses as well as space for a restaurant and the Community Theatre League, which had its theater-in-the-round playhouse on first floor, Gerardi said.

After it expanded into the upper space in 2016, the Community Theatre League paid rent to the city without a signed lease, according to Slaughter.

Slaughter acknowledged, until he recently spoke with CTL management, he didn’t know the lease was invalid.

“Any changes to the lease are required to be reviewed and approved by City Council, solicitors, PennDOT and FTA,” he said. “That did not happen in 2016,” Slaughter said. “We are doing that now.”

Slaughter said he was made aware of the lease agreement issue by the Community Theatre League.

“The third floor does not have an occupancy permit and must address fire codes,” Slaughter said. The ceiling was renovated and at some point, emergency lighting was removed. Such lighting must be put in to meet fire and code inspection standards, he said.

“I am not blaming the Community Theatre League,” Slaughter said. “This is the city’s fault.”

“Somebody, whoever, in 2016 on the city side, clearly dropped the ball or multiple people did,” Slaughter said. “I don’t know. I can’t speak to that, I was not here.”

The “purported lease,” which is technically “invalid,” because it did not go before council and the solicitor in 2016, will expire at the end of the year, according to Lubin.

“That’s right,” Slaughter said. “The invalid lease, if it were valid, was set to expire.”

“We have to remedy the situation by going through PennDOT, solicitors, FTA and council,” Slaughter said. “I support community theater and am working to remedy the situation. However, I am only one piece of the equation.”

As for no occupancy permit granted in 2016, Slaughter said, “that could have been a liability nightmare had something happened.”

Attempts to reach Adam Winder, general manager of River Valley Transit since earlier this year, were not immediately successful. State Department of Transportation District 3-0 spokeswoman Maggie Baker said that PennDOT is referring further questions to River Valley Transit regarding the lease and past and future use of the building.

“River Valley Transit is not a separate city entity,” Lubin said. “If there is an agreement for renewal, fine. If not, fine.”

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