Locals push for funding during bus tour of blight
COAL TOWNSHIP - For the second time in nine days, state officials took a bus tour of Shamokin and Coal Township Friday to see blighted properties and hear from local officials what's being done to address the issue.
The tour began in the Edgewood and Ferndale sections of the township's west end, and the bus stopped to let its passengers off long enough to take photos of blighted homes and take in the problem firsthand.
Like a bus on a normal route, it traveled east to city hall and let off a handful of township officials to make room for a few from the city. It was off again, this time to Bear Valley Avenue and then the former Shamokin Dress Company building on Bunker Hill.
The tour later made stops at the former St. Anthony School in Ranshaw and a row of homes on Girard Street in Atlas, Mount Carmel Township.
Edward Christiano, executive director of Northumberland County Housing Authority, helped lead the tour, directing the bus driver to stop at properties involved or sought by the city and township for the municipalities' respective blight remediation programs.
The county housing authority was awarded $500,000 by the state Department of Community and Economic Development. It redirected portions of the funding to Coal Township, Mount Carmel, Shamokin, Sunbury and Ralpho Township, all of which pledged the use of up to 30 percent of Community Development Block Grant funds to bolster their shares. Additional matching funds through the county's own CDBG program as well as the county housing trust fund brings the total to more than $1 million.
The story is the same, but it's importance is enough to city council members, township commissioners, county commissioners and state legislators to impress upon DCED officials in attendance the importance of funding such an initiative.
The goal is blight remediation - acquisition followed by demolition or rehabilitation.
C. Champ Holman, DCED deputy secretary for Community Affairs and Development, said the demolition of a blighted property can raise property values as high as 20 percent in some neighborhoods. If the remaining parcel of land is sold and a new home constructed, it brings new revenue to a municipality's tax roll.
A Schuylkill County native, Holman is familiar with the issue of blight. In his position, though, he travels across the state and has learned the issue isn't only unique to the coal region. Blight is a problem in many pockets across Pennsylvania, he said, including the Pittsburgh area and Moon Valley.
Peter J. Zug, DCED executive director of the Governor's Center for Local Government Services, said much the same, adding that the department will look to study the efforts of a dozen municipalities in remediating blight, using the results to create a statewide mechanism to get a handle on the problem.
Craig Fetterman, chairman of the township commissioners, pointed out that Shamokin and Coal Township once had a combined population of more than 40,000. The combined population today is less than half, approximately 17,500, but the infrastructure for the larger population remains, some of it falling into disrepair.
"It's just simple math. Everyone is gone," Fetterman said.
"Now's the time to take a look at it and fix the old infrastructure and to make it conform to what the population is now," Holman said.
State Rep. Kurt Masser and Sen. John Gordner attended, both of whom Holman credited with bringing attention in the Legislature to the issue of blight.
Others in attendance included Paul Leshinskie, township commissioner; Rob Slaby, township manager; Bill Milbrand, Shamokin mayor; Lynn Dixson and Rick Bozza, Shamokin's community development officer and code enforcement officer, respectively, and the new city clerk, Robert M. Slaby. Also attending were county commissioners Steve Bridy and Rick Shoch, and Pat Mack, the county's director of planning and industrial development.