Photo of Western Penitentiary State Correctional Institution. Flickr image via MissMessie / Flickr.

Longtime North Side residents and local political leaders expressed surprise last week when the Pennsylvania Department of General Services confirmed that they’d entered a preliminary agreement to sell the shuttered 22-acre State Correctional Institution on the North Side to The Manchester Bidwell Corporation, a workforce development nonprofit located nearby.

Their price for the prison? $1.

Is this the standard way for our Commonwealth to sell a property?

It’s certainly one way.

According to Troy Thompson, press secretary for the PA Department of General Services, the first step with a surplus property is offering it to other Commonwealth agencies.

If no other government organization is able or willing to take the space, the surplus property moves out of DGS control one of two ways: either a public bidding process or a “legislative conveyance,” where the property is directed to a particular third party.

In the case of the State Correctional Institution, DGS went with the latter option. “It also allows you to get a buyer in who has the best interests of the community in mind,” says Thompson. Manchester Corporation “seemed like it would be a very good fit because of those deep roots and the success that they have had in the Pittsburgh area.”

While the price tag has raised eyebrows, State Sen.Wayne Fontana, who represents the district including the North Side, pointed out that the sale price doesn’t reflect the entire cost of for Manchester Bidwell Corporation. The nonprofit will have to assume the costs of inspecting the site and performing environmental tests.

And if the purchase is approved, they’ll be responsible for redeveloping the site — a potentially multi-million dollar investment.

“Sold for a dollar isn’t quite accurate. They’re fronting the money to do that,” says Fontana. “Any time you sell something that’s not pad ready, it’s for a really low amount.”

Pad ready?

A building term. It means ready for use and habitation.

The prison has been vacant since July of 2017. Isn’t it good that someone wants it?

Totally, but neighbors and politicians alike are concerned about the lack of transparency and public input prior to the announcement.

Thompson acknowledges these criticisms. But he says that the state General Assembly will have final approval over the deal — meaning the public will have every opportunity to read and comment on the deal. “We understand that everyone wants to have their voice heard,” he says. Thompson went on to say that his office helped organize a public meeting last week with Sen. Fontana and Rep. Jay Wheatley to solicit public comments on the future of the property.

But despite his role leading that meeting, Fontana says he and his fellow lawmakers were blindsided by the announcement, just like everyone else.

“Quite frankly, Representative Wheatley and I both didn’t know that was going to happen,” says Fontana. “We knew they were talking, but we didn’t know they would give them an exclusive opportunity.”

As for the public meeting? “There’s no question there should have been another public meeting, at least one more before they entered into anything with Manchester Bidwell or anybody else for that matter,” says Fontana. “We, like the public, were sort of pushed out during that process.”

City Councilperson Darlene Harris, who represents the North Side, held a press conference in front of the building on Friday, announcing her opposition to the current deal.

Is there anything both sides agree on?

Like the DGS, both Fontana and Harris have nothing but praise for Manchester Bidwell’s many decades of workforce and community development. If the numbers can make sense, and the community approves, Fontana says he would gladly let the organization take control of the site.

Manchester Bidwell did not respond to a request for comment left Monday morning.

What happens next?

Fontana says he and Wheatley have already had one meeting with Manchester Bidwell and will have another in July, once the nonprofit has completed their preliminary survey of the site and drafted their construction plan.

He stresses that the current deal is not set in stone. “There’s an agreement to purchase, but it’s a lot of contingencies that are involved on that,” he says. “One of those contingencies is community input.”

Even if the deal is eventually approved, Fontana says it’s more than likely that Manchester Bidwell will still need a private partner for the full cost of remediation, given the immense cost of transforming the prison into a workable space.

“I’m not sure Manchester Bidwell, as a nonprofit, can actually develop that property on their own,” he says.

For Fontana, this collaborative use of the property would be the most desirable outcome, because having at least some for-profit tenants at the 22-acre site would provide a much-needed infusion to the local tax base.

While he has some criticism for the process so far, Fontana tells NEXTpittsburgh that he and his colleagues in the general assembly are eager to get the space occupied and contributing to the community.

“If Manchester Bidwell can help do that, that’s great,” says Fontana. “If they can’t, we’ll just need to move on and find someone else”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.