Honesdale building needs 911

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 10/19/21

HONESDALE, PA — An old brick building stands where Dyberry Creek meets the Lackawaxen River in downtown Honesdale. It’s in bad shape and has been vacant for years now. Soon, there may be …

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Honesdale building needs 911

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HONESDALE, PA — An old brick building stands where Dyberry Creek meets the Lackawaxen River in downtown Honesdale. It’s in bad shape and has been vacant for years now. Soon, there may be nothing left of it. That is, unless residents who’d like to see it preserved can find some deep-pocketed developers to reclaim it to modern safety standards.

At last week’s meeting, the Wayne County Commissioners led a lengthy discussion with concerned residents about the planned demolition of the historic building at Industrial Point, known colloquially as “the old ambulance building.”

The building was constructed in the early 1900s and acted as the local EMS building until about a decade ago. Safety inspectors and engineers noted signs of deterioration and erosion in the years leading up to a 2010 earthquake, which further damaged the building badly enough that it was condemned soon after.

Derek Williams—both a professional and citizen planner, a River Reporter columnist and candidate in this year’s election for Honesdale mayor—first brought his concerns to the commission’s work meeting on October 12. While Williams did not explicitly advocate for the building’s future one way or the other during that work session, he did call for deeper public discussion about the county’s process in determining that future.

“Sometimes… the simple act of discussing something can feel like a disruption,” Williams said. “Talking about Wayne County with others or communicating directly with you [the commissioners] to express something is not meant to disrupt anything, it’s just my way to reflect neighborhood interests and represent my neighbors going forward.”

Williams also sent a letter to the commissioners, calling more directly for the building’s restoration and saying that “alternatives to demolitions have not been considered in public.”

The following Thursday, commissioners chair Brian Smith responded that the board had in fact discussed the topic “in great detail” at prior public meetings, and so he had “taken for granted” that the county’s residents were aware of the commission’s reasoning for tearing down the building.

Hoping to quell residents’ concerns, the commissioners invited county engineer Steve Knash to provide an overview of the building’s recent history leading to this point. Knash acknowledged that a great deal of the thinking and planning that goes into this kind of project is lost to the public.

“We don’t shoot from the hip,” he said. “But sometimes… the public doesn’t see those processes that we go through to come to these decisions.”

Naturally, the first issue is the expense. Knash said that he was involved with restoring a historic county building in the 1990s and that all the renovations worked out to cost 161 percent what it would have cost to construct the building from the ground up. His own cost analysis of the old ambulance building found that it would conservatively cost the county $2.2 million to restore. He said that figure did not take into account the cost of addressing the building’s foundation, which continues to shift to this day.

The other issue is that the planned demolition is currently tied to an existing Lackawaxen River Trails project, an effort between residents and the county to connect the boroughs of Honesdale and Hawley via several river access points along the Lackawaxen. The site of the old ambulance building, known as Industrial Point, is one of these expected river access spots.

“We wrote in an Local Share Account (LSA) grant [administered through the PA Department of Community and Economic Development] and a Fish & Boat Commission grant that the building was going to be razed and the area was going to be used for public recreation,” commissioner Joe Adams said. “We were awarded in the neighborhood of $500,000 from Fish & Boat Commission and DCED… to provide the recreational opportunity to utilize the river.”

According to Knash, tearing down the building—turning part of the lot into county employee and visitor parking spaces and the rest into a picnic area with a view of the river—would cost just shy of $200,000, which would be covered by the state funding.

Williams suggested that since the cost of restoration would be too high for the county to take on, it could try and find a private developer to purchase the building, with the built-in conditions that the developer bring the building back up to code, and not interfere with any of the planned recreational uses of that property associated with the river trails project. He said that it wasn’t unusual for grantees to go back to a funding body and request that their award be reallocated for different uses than originally expected.

Chief Clerk Andrew Seder said that he’s concerned that changing the plans now could affect the project’s timeline and thus the funding.

“These grants have deadlines and end dates that you must have things done… if we delay this any longer, we’re going to lose the Fish & Boat Commission grant, we’re going to lose the DCED grant,” he said. “This is like a Jenga puzzle; if you pull one piece out, the whole thing collapses, they’re all interconnected.”

Smith concluded the discussion somewhat tongue-and-cheek, “We’re not changing our timeline until you come to us with someone with a million bucks who wants to buy [the building].”

Williams, however, suggested he was up to the challenge, “If I find some developers, I’ll send them your way.”

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