There is surely something both noble and sad in the groundbreaking for a new Weinberg Food Bank center Monday.
Noble because only the most callous would bemoan or belittle the center’s daily effort to feed the needy, sad because the need has grown enough to justify the new facility, officially dubbed the “Monsignor Andrew J. McGowan Center for Healthy Living.”
The need is proven in the numbers: the Commission on Economic Opportunity’s food bank, a clearinghouse for food heading to regional agencies, delivered about 1 million pounds of food to 18 agencies in 1996; Today it is nearly 5 million pounds to 138 agencies.
It’s also heartening to see the philanthropy and government assistance that helped make the new $6.4 million center possible: $2 million from the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund, $1 million from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, $1 million through the state Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program, $500,000 from Luzerne County, and land valued at $1.2 million from Rob Mericle.
Yes, it’s that Rob Mericle, admitted felon, the man who developed a habit of showering gifts on powerful people from the start of his budding career, including Cabbage Patch Dolls given to disgraced former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella back when the dolls were a mania.
The gifts became paid vacations, then simply cash tucked in the pages of a vacation magazine. That was before Mericle helped launch arguably Luzerne County’s most notorious scandal by paying millions in “finder fees” to Ciavarella and cohort in crime ex-Judge Michael Conahan while the duo controlled the flow of juveniles to private detention centers Mericle helped build.
Most call it “Kids for Cash,” though to this day Ciavarella bitterly rejects the label.
Mericle has long donated money, land, services and equipment to worthy causes, building a tremendous amount of goodwill that served him well as the corruption case unfolded. Supporters ignored his crime and touted his generosity. He has continued the habit after pleading guilty to federal charges.
There is an obvious argument that he bought his way out of serious jail time and is buying his way back into social rehabilitation. There’s also an obvious argument that the land he donated for the food bank is valued at $1.2 million solely because it sat on his massive development, Center Point Commerce and Trade Park East.
So, yes, this food bank has the Mericle taint. But that shouldn’t negate the good the food bank has done and will surely continue to do.
When you have hungry children, you don’t likely care if the donated food came from an agency that worked with a commission that accepted donated land from a convicted felon trying to (legally) rehabilitate his image.
You care that your children are fed.