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Williamsport reviewing 11 proposals to study vacant City Hall and city office space needs

Williamsport has received 11 proposals to study what to do with long-vacant City Hall and where to house city offices in the future.

City engineer Bill Scott is reviewing the proposals, which city officials declined to release pending his review. 

The City Council sought the proposals in hopes of resolving years of stalemate over the issue.

Considered a historical landmark, the city moved offices out of the building at 245 W. 4th St. three years ago. City offices replaced a former post office there in 1979. They were at 454 Pine St. before that. 

The majority of city offices relocated to Trade and Transit Centre I and II on West 3rd Street in February 2020, though some offices remained in City Hall until the fall of 2021. 

Concerns about accessibility for people who use wheelchairs, elevators unequipped to help the deaf and blind and the threat of mold from water damage contributed to the moves.

Mayor Derek Slaughter blames decades of inconsistent maintenance for City Hall’s closure.

“If they have done preventative maintenance over the years, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. It was because they had band aids, kicked the can down the road to band aid a little bit more … It was probably to try not to spend as much money,” Slaughter said.

Ramped up

A federal lawsuit kicked off the series of events that led to the closure. The Center for Independent Living of North Central Pennsylvania sued the city in July 2020 because City Hall lacked a ramp for people who use wheelchairs, and the group said it was unsafe inside for deaf and blind people.

The city and center settled the lawsuit in February 2021. The settlement included a requirement to build the ramp and modify the elevator. The city spent $164,516 on a ramp completed in December 2021 – after City Hall was empty. 

The city studied handicapped access as part of the lawsuit and concluded upgrades would potentially cost a lot of money, Slaughter said. 

Months after the suit, in July 2021, a thunderstorm exposed roof leaks. Odors followed and city officials suspected mold. They hired Pennoni, an engineering consulting firm, to assess air quality. 

City inspectors condemned the building in August 2021. Council Vice President Eric Beiter said the council moved its meetings to the Trade and Transit Centre because of the handicapped access issues, not because of the condemnation.

“We continued through that (building the ramp), because of the consent decree,” he said. 

The Pennoni study found acceptable levels of fungus and humidity and recommended addressing water damage, but did not recommend moving out of the building. 

Police make move

Nonetheless, the rest of City Hall offices moved out in fall of 2021, including police headquarters. Police are in Peter Herdic Transportation Museum at 810 Nichols Place, though evidence records remain in City Hall’s basement. 

In City Hall, employees and the public could walk through the police station, Slaughter said.

“It just wasn't safe,” Slaughter said. “If we had an individual that was handcuffed to the bench, you walked right past them to any meeting. Obviously, a huge concern … It was not recommended that you have all of your, you know, city services in one place. ” 

A fault in City Hall’s heating system caused another water leak in December 2021, extensively damaging ceiling tiles on the first and second floors and producing renewed odors.

“It was again, water's everywhere,” Slaughter said. 

Most of City Hall offices were moved out by then. 

“It was either, you know, sinking millions and millions and millions of dollars into it, or you come over here into buildings that we own and have … I thought it made more sense to just come over here and utilize these spaces,” Slaughter said, referring to the Trade and Transit Centre.

Above asking price

The city sought bids for City Hall last year and received three, including one more than $50,000 higher than the $499,000 asking price. 

The bids came from Neil L. Felver, owner of Herbal Gifts in South Williamsport, who bid $499,000; Tim Butters, owner of City Hall Ventures LLC, of Williamsport, $100,000, who renovated 454 Pine St.; and JBAS Realty of Jessup, a Scranton suburb, $550,500.

City Council tabled the bids in September, then sought the feasibility study.

Slaughter wants to sell. He points out CIty Hall contains about 40,000 square feet, too much space for the 25 employees left after police moved out, Slaughter said.

“Do we really want to put $10-15 million into the building? Or do we just want to sell it? It was an old post office … Get that (current City Hall) back on the tax rolls. We don't need 40,000 square feet,” he said. “I think it's time for them to take a vote. It's time to just sell it.”

The council has budgeted $75,000 for the study, a waste of money in Slaughter’s eyes.

“I'm not in favor of the feasibility study because we've done seven or eight of them already,” he said.

Slaughter said he’s exploring other potential locations for city offices.

“But none of those include going back into City Hall, so let's sell City Hall,” Slaughter said. 

Concerns about selling

Leery about selling so quickly, Beiter said selling City Hall is one of the council's biggest concerns. 

“What we've asked the administration for several times, and have not gotten is a plan of action,” Beiter said. “If we are going to sell the building, where are we going to go?”

With the city trying to distance itself from the River Valley Transit Authority, which owns the Trade and Transit Centre, staying there and paying rent is “not a conducive arrangement,” Beiter said.

“This issue - since I've been on council and since the mayor has been in place - is where is our home? What's the financial feasibility of whatever that's going to be and that financial feasibility has really been the big gap,” Council President Adam Yoder said. 

The council budgeted $20,000 for rent for 2023. The cost per square foot in all city government offices is $11, Yoder said. The study will give the public better information about the options available.

Yoder said council members hoped to spur the administration toward a long-term solution. Slaughter administration hasn’t come up with one, he said.

“We asked them for months, and we never got back from that. At this point, from our perspective on council, it is in our best interest to figure out what is the best course of action - whether that's to stay or go,” Beiter said. 

Yoder did not dispute the decision to move out of City Hall, even though the Pennoni study “found out that there were no mold issues.”

“Anytime you've got a risk of mold or health risk, you need to get people out of there investigated,” Yoder said. “I think what's unfortunate is we either just didn't fix the issue and move back in or we're out. Let's figure out what we're going to do rather than just kind of sit here in a facility or renting and just let it sit there. We've lost some time in addressing the issue, unfortunately, because of that lack of action.”

Slaughter defended moving as better than wasting more money on City Hall.

“It was either sinking millions and millions and millions of dollars into it or coming over here into buildings that we own and have… I thought it made more sense to just come over here and to utilize these spaces,” Slaughter said. 

Despite the rental cost at the Trade and Transit Centre, Slaughter views past money set aside for City Hall maintenance as rent. Slaughter claimed the city pays less for office space now than before.

“We always paid ourselves rent even when we were in City Hall … A budget was supposed to go for maintenance of the buildings, things of that nature … Over the years, it did not go towards upgrades or maintenance of the building,” Slaughter said. 

Divided community

City Hall’s long vacancy has divided the community. Members of Save Williamsport City Hall want city government back in there.

“It's the perfect location. It's center city. When the parade goes by, you know, where they set up to view the parade and film it for TV?” group member Elizabeth Fink said. “Probably right there, right in front of it. Because it's a beautiful building, you cannot make anything like this … This is epic and it lasts. Why would you give that up? Why would you give that away?” 

Mark Winkelman, a local architect and owner of The Pajama Factory, said the issue is no longer accessibility compliance, but agrees City Hall needs renovating.

“I think it should be gutted. It’s probably more space than the city needs,” he said.

Local historian Bruce Huffman called City Hall “a source of pride for Williamsport” because it may be one of the city’s “most impressive looking buildings.”

Winkelman agreed.

“You need a lot of money. But you're halfway there with this. And I think one of the biggest assets of this town is the old buildings. And what a great excuse. What a great showpiece for historic Williamsport if that is the center of the city,” Winkelman said. 

Future uncertain

Until at least after the study, City Hall’s future will remain uncertain. The city might make the feasibility study proposals public next week. 

For now, city offices remain scattered.  Most are in Trade and Transit Centre I, including planning and Slaughter’s office. The city clerk’s office is in Trade and Transit II. City council meetings take place on its third floor.

The city’s codes bureau and public works are in separate buildings – codes in the River Valley Transit building at 1500 W. 3rd St., public works at 1550 W. 3rd St. 

Slaughter doesn’t think it’s a bad thing, however.

 “It's not like there's nothing up there,” Slaughter said. “To me, it's not that big of a deal.”

Slaughter said the public can look up the addresses of City Hall offices online.

Yoder said a central location is important.

“When you think back to why particular offices were centralized, it was really to try to make city government easily accessible for constituents because the offices were generally together in City Hall,” Yoder said.

Beiter said the Lycoming County offered space in its building, Third Street Plaza, at the end of 2022 at $5 a square foot and the council budgeted for that in 2022.

“We would have had a centralized location, we would have been able to share more services with the county, particularly with IT services, security services, meeting spaces, things like that,” he said. 

However, some council members were concerned with being in a building alongside county officials. 

“People would see us as subservient to the county. I don't agree with that. They were even going to put us on a higher floor than themselves … I just think that that's a silly way to go about your employees working together,” Beiter said. 

Yoder said the study may foster a consensus that doesn’t exist because of a lack of data.

“I think the lack of consensus amongst council, and the administration really reflects the community map,” Yoder said. “I don't think there's clear consensus with the public.”

Chase Bottorf is a graduate of Lock Haven University and holds a bachelor's degree in English with a concentration in writing. Having previously been a reporter for the Lock Haven news publication, The Express, he is aware of the unique issues in the Lycoming County region, and has ties to the local communities.

The Lycoming County reporter position is funded by the Williamsport Lycoming Competitive Grant Program at the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania.

You can email Chase at chasebottorf@wvia.org