First, area residents heard about a botched bridge deal.
This week, they learned that the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority seemingly can’t unload a former railroad station in Wilkes-Barre, which it acquired eight years ago using millions of dollars in community development money.
Observers are right to question whether the authority’s members and certain county leaders, past and present, have exercised good judgment on these and other projects, or if they’ve been driven by desperation, deluded by pie-in-the-sky projections or for other reasons negotiated duds for taxpayers.
The authority exists to help communities put unwanted land back into productive use. That’s admittedly a tricky task in the best of times and most desirable of locations, so getting results during the Great Recession’s aftermath in Northeastern Pennsylvania seems a long shot.
Regardless, two of the authority’s transactions definitely aren’t working in the people’s favor strictly based on the math.
The authority in 2007 approved the sale of a former railroad bridge spanning the Susquehanna River near Exeter for $500.
The purchaser, Leo A. Glodzik, supposedly planned to dismantle the structure and sell the scrap metal. However, no contract stipulated the bridge must be demolished or set a deadline. Glodzik didn’t do the work and probably won’t, given his recent spate of financial and legal troubles. It appears Luzerne County will have to scrounge up the cash, perhaps resorting to flood-recovery money, to remove what many people consider a looming hazard. The estimated cost: $600,000 or more.
Adding insult to injury, Luzerne County previously had forked over money related to this ill-fated bridge. Its redevelopment authority bought the span and other railroad property by securing a mortgage from F&L Reality, which had ties to Lackawanna County businessman Louis DeNaples.
In 2000, the authority asked the county for financial help to avoid defaulting on the mortgage. The county supplied $3.5 million — $1.5 million in a community development loan and the rest from bond issues.
Glodzik, owner of LAG Towing, had been married to DeNaples’ daughter; they are now divorced. He has pleaded not guilty to theft charges that cost him a towing contract with Wilkes-Barre and faces federal and state liens on his companies. Interviewed nearly two years ago, Glodzik indicated engineers had inspected the span, saying, “that bridge will be there a hundred years from now.”
The more likely scenario is taxpayers still will be paying for this debacle.
Separately, the redevelopment authority in 2006 bought a downtown Wilkes-Barre tract containing a historic train station and strip mall. Relying on federal community development funds provided by the county, it paid $5.8 million, including $3.56 million for the station’s portion.
Seven years later, an outside appraiser estimated the entire site’s worth at $1.88 million – less than a third of what the government paid.
Participants pinned the problem on the abandoned train station’s deteriorating condition and a dramatic plunge in the commercial real estate market. Also, the original estimate was based, as one person said, on the lot’s “highest and best use.”
Apparently no one locally has a strong desire to acquire the space for any use, let alone the “best.” This week, the redevelopment authority said no developers responded to its requests for proposals to buy the property at the corner of Market Street and Wilkes-Barre Boulevard. Authority members agreed to explore the possibility of hiring a commercial real estate broker to market the site more widely.
So far, the fee for those services is unknown.
The authority’s current members would be wise to clearly communicate their objectives to the public, re-emphasize the value that the group’s other projects bring to the county and explain how they intend to minimize blunders like those now in the news.
Meanwhile, the Luzerne County Council’s members and other area residents must continually monitor and ask questions of an authority intended to clean up messes, not make them.