Panel takes look at housing, mall

The Cranberry Township Economic Development Committee discussed two major issues at its meeting Tuesday — housing development and the Cranberry Mall.

A housing development project to develop a site adjacent to UPMC Northwest, for which grant funding remains unsecured, continues to evade the municipality.

Grants to move similar multi-unit facilities in Clarion and Crawford counties forward shows the project is fundable, committee members agreed.

The goal of the project was to provide around 30 to 40 residential units for low-income seniors, a need the panel further agreed is significant in the area.

Even a partnership between the township and the Crawford Area Transit Authority to provide a bus stop for residents of the units wasn’t enough to tip the funding scales toward Cranberry, said committee member Betsy Kellner.

“I’m just a little disappointed we can’t get (a similar award) in Venango County,” said committee chair Barrie Brancato.

Committee member Judith Etzel suggested the panel consider courting private developers who may have the funding to get the ball rolling.

Kellner agreed, but added that “with private developers, things can fall apart” if the money disappears. Grant funding, said Kellner, offers a better shot at completing any project that gets started.

Kellner agreed, however, that “it certainly doesn’t hurt to have other options.”

The committee agreed to entertain the idea of a private partner in the project should one materialize.

The Cranberry Mall, the committee agreed, is the municipality’s prime property for redevelopment, but comes with its own challenges.

The mall, said Etzel, is paid for and has existing parking and infrastructure already available for most any utility a business could want.

“It’s clear, and it’s there,” she said.

Brancato suggested it may be time to start thinking about ways to repurpose the structure.

The less viable the mall becomes, Etzel reminded the panel, the more county, municipal and school district tax revenue is lost.

The tax burden, Etzel said, has been there for a while.

“All parties should be interested” in its successful redevelopment, she said.

Among the ideas suggested was to combine the need for housing and the available space to create a sort of “one stop shop” that could include both housing units and commercial spaces within the same complex.

The panel also decided to reach out to Zamias Services, of Johnstown, whose CEO Steven Zamias had planned to be at last year’s Cranberry Expo before the event was canceled due to ongoing pandemic concerns.

The panel agreed to reach back out to Zamias going forward to re-establish a dialogue.

The panel discussed ongoing concerns related to broadband development in Venango County with Cranberry Township supervisor Matt McSparren saying that legislation currently moving through the process could provide billions of dollars in grant funding that the township could keep its eye on.

The pandemic, said Kellner, “exposed a need” for access to reliable, sufficient connectivity to participate in things like work and school during lockdowns and periods of heavy quarantine.

Infrastructure was tested multiple times by the number of people trying to use it at once, Kellner said.

Now, she said, it’s time to invest in infrastructure that can compete with a new push to work, and attend school, from home for some people.

The same infrastructure, said McSparren, could go far toward the retention of current residents often lost after attending college or graduating from high school.

The Cranberry economic panel will meet again at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19.