The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 17, 2013

Portage plan is taking shape

PORTAGE — One can already find tangible effects of Portage Borough’s 10-year comprehensive plan – an outline that addresses community concerns and establishes means for economic and industrial development.

You can even tour it yourself – during an open house.

Last fall, Russ Kiel of Russ Kiel Construction Co. in Portage finished work on one of the two-unit apartments he's building on the 800 block of Caldwell Avenue – called the "Centre Town Villas."

The two-bedroom, one-bathroom townhouses he’s currently marketing are just a short jaunt from Main Street. Portage officials intend to focus much of their local economy-strengthening efforts there, according to Rick Truscello of The EADS Group of Johnstown, who helped co-draft the plan alongside the commission.

“One of the things that we looked at and were directed to look at by the planning commission is the number of vacant storefronts, underutilized storefronts, and, in a couple cases, some vacant land,” Truscello said.

“We’re trying to piece them together and come up with an approach to facilitate downtown development.”

One aspect of the plan’s effectiveness in this matter comes in the form of a little-known tax incentive program: The Local Economic Revitalization Tax Act, or LERTA.

Under LERTA, property owners will be absolved of property tax payments on renovated or newly developed lots for a predetermined period of time. The property’s tax value will remain at its undeveloped levels for a time frame decided by each of its municipality’s taxing bodies.

“The availability of grants has certainly been declining over the years,” Truscello said, adding that the employment of LERTA gives municipalities more freedom to build and bring in new business.

“What can we do ourselves?” he said. “What kind of private development can we encourage?”

Near the intersection of Caldwell and Main, Kiel, a Portage native and contractor for more than 30 years, is getting ready to show the Centre Town Villas again.

The sale price is $139,000 and although the units will be pre-equipped with the basic amenities – gas heating, central air, appliances and full wheelchair accessibility – Kiel said the LERTA incentivization will be like icing on the cake.

“(It) will enable us to market these units better,” Kiel said. “If I can advertise that these are $139,000 but you’re not going to pay any property taxes for three years, there’s another $6,000 they just got handed.”

The two units standing now are the first he placed on the old Portage Area School District lot. He and partners bought the land before turning part of it into a plaza. They sold the plaza side and Kiel is now sole owner of the Centre Town Villas plot. He said he could build 10 more homes just like the current two, but won’t until he can market the ones he already has.

“I’ve been marketing them to people who are retired or ‘snowbirds’; people who are having trouble with steps or their house is too big and it costs $500 or $600 to heat it,” he said. “My son’s in a wheelchair, so (mobility and accessibility are) always in the back of my mind.”

Kiel said creating inviting opportunities for new residents, new business and, consequently, new tax revenue is part of what Portage’s 10-year plan is all about.

“You could move in here and save a lot,” he said. “Plus, the area is welcoming you. It gives the perception that we want you here.”

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