The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

May 5, 2013

Dueling for dollars: Competition fierce for state construction grants

HARRISBURG — Two private colleges and a Catholic high school were among the 54 projects that received state funding when the Corbett administration handed out $125 million in grant money for large local construction projects earlier this year, government records show.

They are not alone and competition is fierce with only 1-in-3 applicants being selected. Nine other private colleges and universities were among the 126 projects that were passed over.

Public universities don’t qualify for funding through the program, said Jay Pagni, a spokesman in the governor’s budget office. But private colleges across the commonwealth have been lining up to make the case that their ambitious construction projects are not only good for them, they are good for the community.

When the state Senate approved a bill last week recommending projects for the program, 27 of Pennsylvania’s 94 private colleges and universities were among the organization seeking money proposed through the redevelopment capital assistance program.

In all, the universities and colleges are seeking $289.25 million in government aid for large construction projects – typically buildings and athletic facilities. In some cases, the colleges seeking public dollars have more out-of-state students on their campuses than Pennsylvania residents, government data shows.

Because the public colleges are not seeking the same dollars, the private universities are competing against hospitals, private businesses and local development groups.

Among the organizations that were approved for funding earlier this year were: Geisinger Health System in Montour County and JWF Industries in Cambria County. Geisinger got $2 million to help its Hospital of Advanced Medicine.

The Cambria County business got $1 million to pay for a 160,000-square-foot building. That project is expected to create 126 jobs, Pagni said.

Among those passed over in the recent round were: A project involving Sharon Regional Hospital, and a project at Wendell August Forge, both in Mercer County; and an effort to further revitalize downtown Ellwood City in Lawrence County.

State Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence, said that while the Corbett administration has indicated that the new rankings are supposed to focus the dollars toward projects that create jobs, he has not seen any specific explanation of how they objectively rank projects.

The Ellwood City project would have complemented an earlier project that added a stage and farmers market area to downtown Ellwood City, he said.

The idea is to convert two underused buildings into a home for a telecommunications business that employs 100 people, and then use the remainder of the space for shops and restaurants.

“It’s a valuable project,” Gibbons said, adding that the intent is to create and retain jobs in the downtown district.

Pagni said several factors come into play when determining which projects get selected.

Job creation is important. But so are the overall economic development potential, cultural significance of the plans and how close to actually completing the project the applicant is.

The batch of projects funded earlier this year included efforts in 28 of Pennsylvania’s 61 counties, Pagni said.

“We are trying to spread the love,” Pagni said. “If there is an overabundance in an area, we say ‘Let’s look at the geographic distribution’ of the public dollars.”

Private colleges are very good candidates because they tend to satisfy most of the state's requirements, said Don Francis, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania.

Private colleges typically apply for the funding only after they have other funding lined up, so they can tell the state they are ready to act quickly.

And in many cases, private colleges are the anchor employer in small towns, so these efforts revitalize entire communities. That makes them good candidates when the state is looking for ways to invest in rural communities, he said.

Francis pointed to the example of Bucknell University’s use of $9 million in state dollars to help pay for the university’s investment in downtown Lewisburg, Union County. The college opened a Barnes and Noble campus bookstore on Market Street and took over landmark downtown buildings including the Campus Theater and the post office.

Private colleges really didn’t begin paying attention to government funding for capital projects until they started getting increased competition from state-related schools in fund-raising, Francis said.

Once the state-related schools began to pay more attention to fundraising, the private colleges began to encounter situations where foundations and other prominent donors decided to divide their donations. Faced with the competition, private colleges began to wonder if there might be ways to close that gap, he said.

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