Corbett kills $200 million Fayette County prison project

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HARRISBURG -- Contractors have been selected, environmental impact tests have been performed and schematics have been drawn for water lines, but the Corbett administration Thursday pulled the plug on a $200 million prison construction project in Fayette County.

"The project has been canceled in the best interest of the commonwealth," according to a letter dated Thursday and addressed to executives of two construction firms that had expected to work on the project.

The letter was signed by Sheri L. Phillips, acting secretary of the Department of General Services. It was briefly posted on the department's website but was hastily removed when reporters, legislative aides and others began asking questions.

The proposed German Township prison would have served 2,000 inmates and created 650 jobs in an economically strapped area, said state Rep. Tim Mahoney, D-Uniontown, whose district borders the planned construction site.

Other corrections projects, including a new prison in Centre County and an expansion of the State Correctional Institute Graterford, will proceed.

Acting Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel issued a statement late Thursday saying that the planned German Township prison is not "absolutely needed."

Other prisons are under-utilized and the state is working toward using treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration for certain nonviolent offenders, he said. Further, he said, with the majority of inmates coming from Eastern Pennsylvania, building a prison in the western part of the state "is not conducive to our current re-entry plans, where family connections play a large role in helping inmates return to a productive life in society."

Mr. Wetzel also cited environmental and health concerns. The proposed prison site is a former salvage yard.

Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, whose district includes the site, challenged Mr. Wetzel's reasoning.

He noted that 2,155 Pennsylvania inmates are incarcerated in Michigan and Virginia because there isn't room in commonwealth prisons and said that extensive environmental testing turned up no significant problems.

Corrections spokeswoman Sue McNaughton said space is opening up in other prisons and that new beds are being added at nine community correction facilities. The expansion will allow 1,100 inmates being housed in Michigan to come back to Pennsylvania by August, she said.

Corrections officials did not know how much had been spent on environmental testing and other site preparations but referred questions a to General Services spokesman who did not return calls.

Mr. DeWeese said the costs have been significant, both in terms of dollars and time.

"Thousands of man hours were engendered by township officials, water and sewer board members and countless Department of General Services employees," he said. "There was a platoon of hard workers."

The state does not plan to reimburse contractors for costs they have already incurred because contracts had not yet been signed, Ms. Phillips said in the letter.

"No work, on-site or off-site, was authorized by the department," she wrote to Kevin Swain, vice president of Walsh Construction in Canonsburg, and Monte McKinney, vice president of Caddell Construction Co. in Montgomery, Ala. "The department is not liable for any costs that may have been incurred."

The two companies submitted a joint bid, which was selected in the fall by the outgoing administration of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

Mr. Swain and Mr. McKinney did not return phone calls Thursday.

Along with the letter, bid documents were removed from the website. Among them was a 200-page plan Walsh and Caddell provided to outline the construction schedule, reveal subcontractors' qualifications and identify the project's challenges.

The letter, but not the documents, reappeared online Thursday afternoon, after news sites, including post-gazette.com, posted stories about the controversy.

Often, communities rebel against plans to build prisons in their neighborhoods because of concerns about safety and unsightly prison fences. However, in economically depressed German Township, the vast majority wanted it because it meant jobs, state and local officials said.

"To raise the hopes of people and then have those hopes taken away, to me, is an abomination," said Fayette County Commissioner Vincent Zapotosky.

"It's a shame. These folks had embraced this facility with open arms, which we trust is not normal. I mean, it's a correctional facility."

Area business owners had been looking forward to the construction, too. They say it would have revitalized the area and provided a utility infrastructure to an area that now uses well water and septic tanks.

"If the prison opened and they would've put in a [sewer] trunk line, this area would've gone wild," said Bill Aupperle, a partner in Lardin House, a restaurant in a historic building near the prison site. "The prison would've probably [also] brought the gas line."

Mr. Aupperle said Lardin House might yet benefit from an alternative plan to bring a small sewer line into the area, but any benefit would have been nothing like the potential impact of a prison.

Another area business owner, Geno Tiberi, called the cancellation "a big stab in the back. We have no jobs in this area. That [project] was a big shot for everybody."

Mr. Tiberi owns Mario's Bar, located about a mile and a half from the prison site. He had expected to sell food to construction workers and then prison guards.

He also owns 17 rental units in the area and built several houses, but has been unable to sell them.

Mr. Aupperle said he voted for Mr. Corbett in the gubernatorial election but thinks his administration's decision to stop the prison project was motivated by unfortunate personal and partisan considerations.

Mr. DeWeese, who has been a major proponent of the project, views Mr. Corbett as a nemesis.

Mr. DeWeese is a focus of a government corruption investigation waged by the office of Mr. Corbett, then attorney general. He now awaits trial on charges he misused his legislative staff to do political work on state time.

DeWeese supporters say Mr. Corbett has been out to get him.

"In my opinion, the governor is doing nothing but throwing darts at Bill DeWeese," Mr. Aupperle said.

Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Mr. Zapotosky lamented the decision but believes it was made for budgetary reasons, not political ones.

"I just think this thing is just caught in a financial situation," he said. "And $200 million is a chunk of change."


Capitol Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141. Rich Lord: 412-263-1542 or rlord@post-gazette.com .


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