The City of Lebanon is moving its offices to the heart of the downtown shopping district, bringing 90-plus employees with it and drawing praise from the business community.
Merchants in the business district say the change – a goal of the Grow Lebanon 2020 economic development plan – will strengthen the city’s economy by bringing not just the city’s workers closer, but others as well.
“I’ve been a proponent pretty much since day one,” said Richard Wertz, a six-term City Council member, and co-owner of Wertz Candies, which is across the street from what will be the city’s new home – the building at 735 Cumberland St. The business was started his grandfather in 1931.
The city hasn’t had offices downtown since 1962, he said, and it was time to bring them back.
Earlier this fall, City Council approved the sale of the city’s portion of the Lebanon County/City Municipal Building at 400 S. Eighth St. to the county for $2.25 million. That sale allowed council to authorize Mayor Sherry Capello to proceed with the purchase of the HACC building at 735 Cumberland St. for $2.2 million.
The police department, public safety and fire commissioner’s office will be located on the first floor and administrative offices on the second.
Capello said the city will renovate the building’s interior for city operations. The renovations will include constructing a police garage attached to the rear of the building. HACC will occupy the third floor and part of the second floor, totaling almost 22,000 square feet.
As part of the sale, HACC will lease its portion of the building for at least five years no cost. With the sale, HACC will no longer be responsible for services such as facilities, custodial and security, according to a statement released by the college.
“HACC remains committed to its students and employees and the Lebanon community,” the statement said, adding that fall 2020 enrollment at the Lebanon Campus was approximately 760 students.
Settlement of the sale will be no later than June 30. Settlement of the sale between the county and the city will be no later than May 31, 2022.
The HACC building presented the city with a new opportunity, and “we’re going to do this,” Wertz said.
Arthur Funk & Sons Inc. Construction Services, Lebanon, is the general contractor handling the $3.96 million renovation and construction project.
Including that and the $2.2 million purchase price, the total investment would represent a little over $6 million. To pay for that, the city will use $2 million from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, the $2.25 million sale of the city’s portion of the Lebanon County-City Municipal Building, “and the balance will be obtained through the issuance of a bond,” Capello wrote in her email.
There are about 90 full-time and 44 part-time city employees, she said. “That number includes all employees on all shifts. There are 21 full-time firefighters and 12 full-time public works employees that would not report to the building. Also, there are about 14 crossing guards that would only report to the building sporadically. So actually working out of the HACC facility would be more like 57 full time and 30 part time – again, on three shifts.”
Karen Groh, president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the current home of the city’s workforce – the county-city building – is probably six blocks from downtown.
She said bringing those employees to the central business district “is a good thing.” It’s important to have the city workforce “in the middle of our hustle and bustle,” Groh said.
It makes the city offices a little more accessible, she said. Separating them from the county offices is a benefit as well, she said.
“I think it will bring a good influx of people downtown,” she said.
Bob Cook’s restaurant, Queso Dee’as, is directly across from the HACC building.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s going to stimulate downtown, absolutely.”
“More people coming (downtown) is better than what we got going now,” Cook said.
His Tex-Mex fare, he said, is doing a busy takeout business during COVID-19.
“I’m surviving it pretty good,” Cook said. “I count my blessings.”
Lifetime Lebanon resident John Tice, a real estate broker, gives the Capello administration a lot of credit for pushing investment downtown. The renovation and reuse of the HACC building could be a catalyst, he said.
“I’m thrilled that’s taking place,” Tice said. “We’re looking for investors to keep the momentum going.”
After downtown lost much over the years, “we want to bring back the business community,” he said. Tice is bullish in his support of downtown merchants and restaurants frequently doing video interviews and posting them on Facebook.
He expects the city’s move to stimulate more interest in the city.
“My advice to everybody is, answer your phone,” Tice said, because more customers should be coming your way.
A lot of people are in favor of the city’s move but concerned about parking, Wertz said. “We’re working on that.”
He mentioned making spaces out of distressed areas and using places like Liberty Alley, between Seventh and Eighth streets.
“In order to not create a parking burden on the downtown businesses, the city will construct a small parking garage addition for patrol vehicles,” Capello said. “Additionally, some parking spaces will remain in the lot behind the building (after the construction of the small garage) and these spaces will be used for other police and fire vehicles, and a limited number for employee parking.”
The city will build a surface parking lot close by, Capello said, for the majority of employees.
Capello said her administration has been working on moving city operations downtown for a few years. Other mayors were interested in this project as well, but unfortunately, the timing and resources just did not make it feasible for them.”
Many smaller cities throughout the country have recognized the benefits of ensuring that municipal and public services remain in the urban center, not only for the convenience and greater access of all residents, but also for the added benefits for city employees and customers to frequent downtown businesses, she said.
This public investment can, in turn, lead to more private sector development and businesses downtown, she said.
The administration considered different locations over the last couple years, including the former YMCA building at Ninth and Willow streets, Capello said. The administration eventually received a $2 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program award – less than requested – and settled on renovating the HACC building. A final amendment of the RCAP application will be submitted before the end of the year, she added.
In addition to using the building rent free for five years, HACC will pay its pro rata share of utilities, Capello said.
The college will have up to 35 parking spaces on a nearby lot and is required to obtain an additional 25 in the immediate area, she said.
The city currently has about 18,000 to 20,000 square feet of net space in the County-City Municipal Building, Capello said, and the police department has a 10-vehicle garage there.
At the new location, the city will gain much-needed space and utilize about 26,000 square feet.
Capello credited Frank Dixon and the Francis J. Dixon Foundation with integral support. “Mr. Dixon is a tremendous asset to our community,” she said. “… He was instrumental in pulling this all together financially.”
Dixon, a Central Penn Business Journal 2020 Icon Award winner, cited his role in bringing HACC to Lebanon as one of his proudest accomplishments.
“We estimate moving into our new location around April of 2022,” she said. “The future looks bright!”