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Federal judge suggests compromise on courthouse site

Federal Judge Christopher C. Conner today pulled out a peace card and suggested a third alternative site for the construction of a $135 million federal courthouse in Harrisburg.

Federal Judge Christopher C. Conner today pulled out a peace card and suggested a third alternative site for the construction of a $135 million federal courthouse in Harrisburg.

During a congressional hearing at Harrisburg Area Community College’s midtown Harrisburg campus, Conner said the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) should conduct a feasibility study for the construction of the courthouse at one of the administration’s former site considerations: the corner of Second and Paxton streets, which sits in the city’s 100-year flood plain.

Conner, Mayor Stephen R. Reed, GSA Regional Administrator for the Mid-Atlantic Region Barbara L. Shelton, and GSA project manager Abigail K. Low, each testified today before Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) and Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) to state why each favors a different site for the courthouse.

Conner said he is dismayed about the amount of rhetoric and animosity that has developed between Reed and the GSA throughout the site-selection process that has entered its fourth year.

“Having discussed this matter with my judicial colleagues, we respectfully submit that a third site -- a potential compromise site -- should be considered,” Conner said. “This location was one (for) the long list of sites previously studied by GSA. Early in the site-selection process, (Reed) recommended Second and Paxton streets to GSA as his preferred location.”

Reed said he has always contended that the Second-and-Paxton-streets location was one of his favored sites; but added that it is his second-favorite location. The corner of North Sixth and Reily streets is still the appropriate place for the courthouse, he said. It would help keep economic development thriving in the city’s midtown sector, an up-and-coming district that he said has seen more than $325 million in economic development since 1990, another $140 million underway and is poised to boast a total of more than $700 million in the next few years, he said.

Reed said if the courthouse is built at the corner of Second and Paxton streets and should a flood hit -- the likes of which the city saw in 1996, and even more notoriously, in 1972 during Hurricane Agnes -- the courthouse would have to shut down, he said.

GSA only is allowed to build a courthouse in a flood-prone area if other sites cannot accommodate the facility, Low said. If GSA decided to build the courthouse at Conner’s suggested site, the building would have to sit on a raised platform that would help lift the building’s mechanical systems 20 feet above the flood plain, she said.

Due to the intricacies of studying a site within the flood zone, it would cost GSA more than $500,000 to conduct a site analysis of Second and Paxton streets, Low said. GSA just wrapped up a $300,000 study of the corner of Third and Walnut streets, GSA’s favored site, and the corner of North Sixth and Reily streets. GSA has spent more than $2 million conducting its search in Harrisburg so far, Low said.

GSA plans to take Conner’s suggestion back to GSA to find out if another feasibility study can be conducted, Shelton said. She said the hearing went better than she could have imagined.

The hearing started a constructive discourse between GSA and Reed, Specter said. Holden said he hopes the two sides can compromise without further interruption from Congress. Congress and the president must sign off on a final site, Specter added.

Reed submitted a closing statement followed by cheers from a packed room of residents, business owners and other stake holders from the city.

“If we’re going to spend $130 million for the federal-government needs let’s also let it serve local economic development needs,” Reed said of the potential economic-development benefit the courthouse could have in the midtown area. “We can achieve both.”

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