BETHLEHEM TOWNSHIP Special meeting called on Archibald Johnson mansion
On the Friday before this meeting, Commissioners received a gentle nudge from Housenick trustees Bill Leeson, Stephen Baratta and Tom Brady. Trustees offered to give the Township $1.3 million in $130,000 annual payments over the next four years to restore the exterior of the mansion. The catch is that the Township must open the mansion’s first floor to the public within four years. Also, their offer was withdrawn unless the township agreed that night at their May 7 meeting.
“We can’t ask the taxpayers to fund this project when we have no idea what it’s going to cost,” said Michael Hudak. He noted previous cost estimates indicating it would take $3.5 million to restore the first floor alone. “The beat us up on the streetlights to this day and we had that project vetted,” he said, referring to an $800,000 streetlight contract that ultimately resulted in embezzlement charges and convictions against the vendors.
Commissioners never agreed to the proposal, so the offer is withdrawn. But Leeson said on behalf of the trustees that he was willing to sit down with township solicitor Jim Broughal to hammer out a new agreement giving the Township additional time.
Development of the grounds into walking trails has been relatively noncontroversial. The mansion itself has been a bone of contention. The board is leery of getting involved in a restoration that ultimately could gobble up tax dollars. Malissa Davis called the offer a “hard pill to swallow when we don’t know what to do inside.”
Leeson asked Commissioners to look at things from his vantage point. “We don’t want to commit that money only to see the building torn down,” he reasoned. He added that trustees would agree to pay half the cost of a professional consultant to advise commissioners on the most desirable use of the mansion’s interior.
Member of the public were as divided as the commissioners. Don Wright warned it will be a “money pit” while Barry Roth argued that the money needed could be donated. “The economy is on an upswing and people are looking for a place to dump money,” he argued.
Commissioners said that a nonprofit corporation is being formed to accept tax deductible donations, and Tom Nolan reiterated that no township tax dollars would be spent.
At a special meeting tonight, Broughal will report whether he has been able to negotiate a new agreement with the trustees, giving them five years and half the cost of a consultant to advise on the best use of the mansion. At that time, commissioners will also vote on a bid package for the exterior restoration of the mansion, with or without the trustees’ money.