AP NEWS

Former Westmoreland prison’s transformation into $100M veterans’ facility on track

December 28, 2017

Planning for a one-stop veterans’ transition service center at the site of a former state prison in Hempfield is moving ahead on schedule, the developer recently told local officials.

Project director Robert Wright of Stantec told Hempfield supervisors and Westmoreland County commissioners he intends to file a formal site plan for the Greensburg Sunrise Veterans Center in the spring.

David Goldsmith, the Carlisle businessman who bought the 300,000-square-foot facility in 2015, first broached the possibility of a veterans’ transition center to include housing, medical and job training facilities in a regional construction publication and a YouTube video last year. He named Stantec, a publicly traded international professional services firm with expertise in engineering, architecture and project management, to oversee the project earlier this year.

Wright said the site and building assessment of the 96-acre tract will be complete in January.

“That is on schedule. Master planning began in December and will continue for a few more months. Everything that is being built will relate to veterans in one way or another,” Wright said.

He estimated construction would span three years.

“We don’t have a formal budget that we’ve put together yet, but it’s well in excess of $100 million. And it will all be private funds. It’s only going to add to the tax coffers,” Wright said.

Local officials said everything they’ve heard to date is encouraging and confirmed that there have been no requests for taxpayer dollars.

Doug Weimer, chairman of the Hempfield Board of Supervisors, said he’s optimistic about the future of the facility the state closed nearly five years ago.

“We lost around 400 jobs when the facility closed. There are no concrete numbers yet, but this facility will bring jobs back, and there will be people working there who will patronize businesses in the community,” Weimer said.

He said plans call for a health care facility for wounded warriors, the construction of new apartments and townhouses for those transitioning to civilian life as well as a job training center and a training area for service dogs.

Goldsmith purchased the prison at auction in February 2015 for $950,000 and later titled it to Verdant Holdings LLC. He was mum for months as he cast about for a plan.

Repurposing former prisons has been a daunting challenge across the country as inmate populations shrink and states put the facilities on the market.

Not only did Hempfield lose jobs and tax revenue when SCI Greensburg closed, but with the sale of the formerly tax-exempt facility, township officials also faced the harsh reality that the shuttered prison wasn’t going to bring in anywhere near the dollars officials hoped for when it was assessed at $3.3 million. Verdant promptly appealed that assessment and had it reduced to $164,000 for 2017.

State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, hasn’t met with the developer but is anxiously monitoring plans for the facility in his district. The Marine Corps veteran-turned-lawmaker said the proposal holds great potential.

Allegheny and Westmoreland counties have a combined veteran population of more than 140,000, with more active service members mustering out to civilian life every day.

Not only would the facility serve local returning vets, but it has the potential to draw “high-quality veterans and families, which we desperately need, to locate in the county,” Nelson said.

Goldsmith has not revealed how he’ll finance the facility beyond saying it will be private money.

County Commissioner Ted Kopas said the developer met with commissioners several days before Christmas.

“They’ve shown a willingness to be good neighbors. They already donated surplus prison equipment to us for the county jail,” Kopas said.

“They told us they have their financing lined up, and it is, indeed, private money. It fills a known need for veterans services, so I’ll take them at their word that they have the financial backing that they need to get started. It is entirely believable that there would be private financing for a facility like this,” Kopas said.

Once the developer files a formal site plan with the township, it will go to the planning commission for review and approval, Weimer said. Ultimately, it must be approved by the supervisors before construction can begin. That process can take several months, he said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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