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Commissioners Approve $2.6 million for water project in Muncy

By Staff | Feb 20, 2009

In spite of protests from city business owners and residents, the Lycoming County commissioners Thursday approved a $2.6 million loan to the county Water and Sewer Authority so the authority can expand its water system into the Muncy Industrial Park and surrounding area near the Lycoming Mall.

Those who turned out in opposition to the loan cited a wide range of reasons for doing so, among them, that the water system promotes suburban sprawl and benefits a sparsely populated region of the county at the expense of city revitalization.

The commissioners and other supporters of the project countered that focusing on the area around the mall prevents sprawl in more scenic areas of the county and opens up large tracts of developable land not available in the city for industrial and commercial development. Such development will create family-sustaining jobs, they said.

Commissioners also addressed how the county determined spending practices on a well-publicized revitalization project.

City resident Jon Bogle said he opposed “the thrust of development” toward the mall where “few people live and are unemployed.”

Bogle added promoting development in Williamsport will bring jobs to “within five miles of where 40,000 people live.”

The water system expansion is “a grandiose scheme” that will “impoverish” the city’s economy, Bogle said.

David Rizzo said suburban sprawl is no longer considered a positive development practice. Rizzo said he sees many vacant retail stores in an area of the downtown that was once bustling.

It is “a disgrace” that those stores are vacant, Rizzo said.

“We’d be much better off having your attention on our urban center,” he said.

Local business owner Brian Martino, who earlier this week encouraged downtown merchants to attend the meeting to urge the commissioners to declare the city a “growth area,” asked the commissioners to provide financial support for downtown revitalization and promote the city’s existing businesses.

Martino said the city’s downtown revitalization initiative Main Street Program “is under-volunteered and losing traction.”

“We need something done for our Williamsport center city core area,” he said.

One man said he feared that as the county’s population gets older, businesses in the mall area will become inaccessible, while businessman Mark O’Neill expressed anger regarding $2 million the county removed from the table for a proposed Kohl’s retail store downtown.

“We are on the precipice of revitalizing downtown Williamsport,” O’Neill said, adding local citizens want the store to locate in the city and want county funds used for that purpose.

Allison Hopper said she fears development in eastern Lycoming County will undermine recreational opportunities and open space in the county.

“I feel a new energy in the downtown,” said Mae Thaljih, owner of Ozzie and Mae’s Restaurant.

She said she was saddened when the county severed its ties with the Kohl’s project and asked the commissioners to reconsider their decision to remove funding for the project.

“I really know a lot of people downtown who need your support,” she said, adding that if the county did not want to do business with the city, a committee of private residents could be formed for which to a business.

Those supporting the loan said the jobs it will help create by attracting development will help the entire county, including the city.

Chamber president Vincent Matteo agreed the city’s capacity for large development is limited compared the the eastern part of the county.

“We understand the concern of merchants, but the important thing is we want to bring family-sustaining, career jobs to the entire county,” Matteo said.

Oliver Sones of Muncy said past boards of commissioners devoted funding to the city at the expense of other municipalities. Sones added that some city residents do not realize how big Lycoming County is.

Sones said he supports expanding the system because the development it could spur could “create a lot of good-paying jobs for the county and Williamsport.”

Commissioner Rebecca A. Burke said the funding for Kohl’s was removed from the table when the city Parking Authority took over as the lead partner in the project and left the county out of the decision-making process.

Burke said the county repeatedly has asked for information about the project from the city administration and has received nothing.

She said there was an indication Kohl’s planned to use public funds to reduce its debt and that is unacceptable.

The commissioners are unwilling to provide funding of any amount for a project that “does not have the sustainability, good cost-benefit ratio and private investment before we make any money commitment,” Burke said.

Kurt Hausammann Jr., county Department of Planning and Community Development executive director, gave a short slide presentation on how funding acquired by the county over the last 10 years has been divided between county municipalities.

According to Hausammann, the city, which accounts for 25 percent of the county’s population, received $104 million, while the county’s remaining 51 municipalities received $135 million.

Hausmmann said requests by citizens that the county designate the city a growth area is unnecessary. The county Comprehensive Plan already has made the designation.

He added that developing the Comprehensive Plan involved hundreds of people from the county who helped craft a plan they wanted. The plan was not forced down the throats of county residents, he said.

Commissioner Jeff C. Wheeland said he believes there is a lack of communication between city residents and the city administration because people have been led to believe the county is not active with city issues.

“We are active with downtown Williamsport, but that information is not being disseminated,” Wheeland said.