Venango leaders make pitch for recycling center

Venango County officials made their pitch to locate a new county-wide recycling center in part of the former Sears location in the Cranberry Mall at a township supervisors meeting Thursday.

“This is an amenity that people are looking for in moving into this area. It shows we care about the environment,” said Tim Brooks, chairman of the county commissioners. “We want to partner with you.”

A county-led effort to establish a recycling center was launched in 2014 and met with significant success when the county was notified in October 2018 that it had received a $345,502 state grant to equip and develop a recycling center.

Since then, Erik Johnson, the county’s recycling coordinator, has scoured the county for a potential site.

Last year, the back part of a Cranberry Area School District maintenance building off Route 257 was identified as the possible location. That fell through several months ago due to a water mitigation issue and a right-of way difficulty.

Since then, Johnson and others have explored other locations, including vacant land as well as established structures. Johnson, though, came back to a location he had initially favored – an area within the Cranberry Mall, a once vibrant retail center that is battling a continuing loss of commercial tenants.

The site was identified as the back portion of the former Sears store in the mall. The retailer’s auto center was in that space.

“My original idea was to utilize part of Sears but Sears still had a lease (with the mall) so that wasn’t an option,” Johnson told the supervisors. “We approached them again and the mall was very much in favor of a recycling center. We are finalizing the lease now.”

All of that development, though, is contingent on Cranberry Township officials agreeing to allow the facility as a conditional use within a C-2 highway commercial zoning designation. A recycling center is not a permitted use in the zoned area.

On June 17, Ben Breniman, the township zoning officer, denied the county’s request to include a recycling center as a conditional use in the former Sears auto store.

What is now required is a review by the township planning commission which will or will not issue a recommendation to allow the recycling center development. That recommendation will then be considered at a zoning hearing.

“We are looking at the back corner (of the Sears space),” said Johnson, adding it is ideal because of existing loading docks, appropriate utility service and more.

What are the benefits

Briefly, Johnson said the benefits in locating the center at the mall include:

– The costs to develop the center would be minimal compared to other sites because of the existing amenities at Sears. It already has the necessary infrastructure and upgrades, a development that will substantially cut development costs.

– It would be centrally located within a commercial corridor, described as “a hub and a reason for people to come here,” said Johnson. It is also a convenience so residents would be encouraged to use the center.

– The recycling center could spur additional consumer traffic to the mall.

“As residents visit the facility, they would be more inclined to stop and shop at the mall,” reported Johnson. In addition, it would have the potential to attract new businesses to the shopping center.

“With the mall struggling, … you have to think outside the box. This fits into a niche plan,” said Johnson.

– Recycling is considered “a modern day amenity,” said Johnson.

“As Venango County moves into the future, it must address the real problem of population loss and a shrinking tax base,” said Johnson. To keep its population as well as attract more residents, there should be a “consistent outlet for recycling (household and special collection materials) within a community, especially in rural areas, he said.

In checking out the mall location, Johnson asked a Department of Environmental Protection official to review wellhead protection. The county’s proposed location at the mall, noted the agency, presents “minimal risk to the sources” and would be more than 1,000 feet outside the zone for the mall district well.

In addition, reported the DEP, “A centralized location for the collection of recyclables/household hazardous waste has the potential to be more of a benefit for wellhead protection as it can reduce the number of illegal dump sites, divert waste from landfills (and) reduce the need for raw materials.”

As to the center configuration, Johnson said it would be “enclosed, secured, monitored” and would not be “unsightly or a junkyard.” The facility, once the site is obtained, could be operational within six months, he said.

Pros and cons

Township supervisor Fred Buckholtz said he is not against recycling efforts but emphasized, “I’m not completely convinced this is the ideal spot. I think it will be the downfall of the mall.”

In response, county commissioner Vince Witherup said, “I think it will be the opposite. You won’t ever have that mall filled with stores. It will be multi-tenant.”

One light industrial company that was eyeing the empty Sears space was pleased that another concern would take over the auto supply part of the store because they didn’t need that much space, said Johnson.

Barrie Brancato, chairman of the township’s economic development committee, offered, “Malls have to re-invent themselves. While I understand (Buckholtz’s) point, I’m trusting the county will do what is says it will do and needs to do.”

Bonnie Summers, also a committee member, said mall property manager Jeff Clark has expressed support for the recycling center location.

“He was very positive about it, getting tenants into that mall,” she said.

The county has been diligent in exploring various locations for a recycling center, said Witherup, adding “we just haven’t gone into this willy-nilly.”

Harold Best, chairman of the supervisors, told Johnson, Witherup and Brooks that the matter should be taken up with the township planning commission for review and then arrange with the zoning officer to hold a hearing.

“Regardless of our opinions right now, it has to go to the planning commission and they make the recommendation to us,” he said.

Brooks made the final request for an endorsement from the supervisors as to a zoning change. The Sears option, he said, is “a good fit” for the mall as well as the recycling center.

“We all want recycling and we want it to be in the best place possible, “said Brooks. “We can tell people, … ‘look, we have a great recycling center here’ and that is an amenity to bring people and business here. We wanted it to fit here, in Cranberry Township.”