Residents call loss of prison a blow to Fayette

Project would have created 700 jobs


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German Township Supervisor Dan Shimshock spent years coordinating community meetings, doing cost analysis and planning to move forward with construction for a proposed state prison in Fayette County -- a project that energized local residents with the promise of almost 700 new jobs for the economically strapped area.

But last week, when the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett canceled the $200 million prison project, Mr. Shimshock said he wasn't notified.

"It's just a shame that all this time and effort was spent on a project of this size ... and then to really never have the decency to call and tell us that it is not coming," said Mr. Shimshock, who learned of the cancellation from a reporter's text message.

The news came out Thursday when a letter addressed to executives of Walsh Construction of Canonsburg and Caddell Construction Co. of Montgomery, Ala. -- the firms selected to do the project with a joint bid -- was posted on the Department of General Services website.

A subsequent statement from the state Department of Corrections said the new prison in German Township was not "absolutely needed" because other state prisons are already under-used, but many area residents said they wanted more information about the decision.

"There needs to be some explanations of why," Mr. Shimshock said. "What is the reasoning behind it? It would be nice to know that."

The prison construction fallout comes as a hard blow to the German Township area, a once-booming coal district that's now riddled with boarded storefronts, and where more than 21 percent of all residents have an annual income below the poverty level, according to 2005 to 2009 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Money from natural gas exploration and drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation recently has helped the area, but as plans for the 2,000-bed prison fold, so too does hope for adding local construction jobs, attracting outside businesses and improving infrastructure to revitalize the area.

"We're trying to develop, not 'de'-velop," said Jim Peavornick, a lifelong resident of Masontown, and chairman of trustees for the Masontown Volunteer Fire Department. "Instead of going forward, we just took four major steps backwards, if not more."

Though some communities would oppose a prison because of security concerns, many German Township residents supported the project.

Barbara Janosik of Smithfield said the planned prison had not made her feel concerned for her safety.

"I thought everyone was for it, because, you know, everybody's for bringing more work to this area," she said..

"The only reason we want a prison is [there's] nothing else here," said Glenn Townsend of Masontown, a retiree and treasurer of the fire department. He said he heard that chain restaurants, hotels and gas stations could come to the area once the prison was built -- additions that would have provided a welcome boost to the local economy.

"Jobs won't come if the prison doesn't come," added Ed Colebank, a member of the Albert Gallatin Area school board and secretary of the Masontown Volunteer Fire Department. "A lot of people [were] looking forward to making a decent wage, and that's not gonna happen anymore."

At a community game of bingo Friday evening, Margaret Kaputa of Fairchance said the prison cancelation comes as "terrible" news for an already depressed local economy -- but she might understand the rationale.

"I can see the governor trying to make a budget that's gonna work, because I've been trying to [live on] a budget for years, ever since I retired," she said.

"But I got a little extra money in the mail today, so I can come to bingo."


Julie Percha: jpercha@post-gazette.com or 412-263-4903.


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