It was a banner headline appearing in the July 25, 1986, edition of The Tribune-Democrat: “270 to be hired at new prison.”
The state had spent nearly $20 million to upgrade the massive complex started in 1913 as a sanitarium for tuberculous patients and converted in the 1960s into the Cresson Center for the mentally challenged.
For 100 years, the tree-covered ridge at the top of the mountain in Cresson Township has provided an economic boost.
Tribune headlines last week screamed a different message: ”Cresson prison to close.” The subhead talked of the loss of hundreds of jobs, part of a state effort to save $23 million this year and move the 1,500 inmates to Centre County.
The next-day headline, “Cresson in shock,” spelled out the despair felt by officials, residents and prison employees.
If all goes as planned, by June 30 the hustle and bustle at the facility will stop, along with the family sustaining jobs and economic spinoff of more than 500 paychecks.
“With the prison, Mount Aloysius and some other things, over the last 20 years we’ve kind of recovered from the loss of coal mining and the steel mills,” said Gary Bradley, a Cresson Township supervisor and local banker. “Now, it’s like they’re closing the town and locking the gate.”
Along with Cresson, SCI-Greensburg is being shut, with 1,000 inmates to be relocated and 370 jobs impacted.
State legislators are calling for hearings seeking answers to how the prisons were targeted and what will be done to help Cambria and Westmoreland counties, especially the communities that have invested millions of dollars in sewer and water improvements for the facilities.
Westmoreland County Commissioner Charles Anderson is vowing to “fight (the closing of SCI-Greensburg) with every fiber of our beings.”
The Greater Johnstown Regional Partnership sent a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett late last week urging reversal of the decision to close Cresson, or at least a 12-month extension to the operation.
Johnstown businessman Mark Pasquerilla said Friday he is pushing for a nonpartisan commission to look at the issue of prisons in general in the state and to develop a relief plan for communities that lose the significant economic engines.
He is asking Corbett to develop a system to help communities similar to that used by the federal government in dealing with military base closings.
“They can’t have all these cost savings and say to Cambria County and these residents, ‘just rot and die – to hell with you,’ ” Pasquerilla told The Tribune-Democrat.
State legislators from Cambria County said they received no warning about the Cresson closing and were not even aware it was being considered.
State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, who has Cresson in the middle of his district, was still seething Friday as he and other legislators made plans for a community meeting likely late this month.
“There’s nothing I’ve ever seen before over the years like this,” he said. “Over the years, when we’re closing a facility they usually come in and have a public hearing, let the people working there know ahead of time.”
Pasquerilla thinks the decision to close Cresson smacks of politics and was not well thought out.
“The way this was handled was wrong. The way this was handled was irresponsible,” he said. “We’re not going to be nailed to a Tea Party cross for political purposes.”
The process in determining whether to close a prison is multifaceted, said Sue Bensinger, a state Department of Corrections spokeswoman.
A facility’s age is key, especially at facilities that are more labor intensive. Equally important is the role the facility plays in the statewide system, which serves more than 51,000 inmates, she said.
SCI-Waymart in Wayne County serves mentally ill inmates. SCI-Laurel Highlands in Somerset County houses those with significant physical illness, and others specialize in drug and alcohol treatment.
Cresson is not a speciality facility, she said.
With plenty of space on top of Cresson Mountain already belonging to the state, many are questioning why a new facility was not built there to replace the existing one.
Bensinger said unemployment rates were not a factor in locating the new prison in the economically booming Centre County region, but rather it was about location.
Because it is at the center of the state, Benner was built not only to provide permanent housing for as many as 2,000 inmates, but as a transportation hub, she said.
Inmates being moved from one end of the state to the other will be temporarily housed at Benner until a bus can be filled and the trip completed, she said.
Questions have been raised about millions of dollars in expenditures at the Cresson prison during the past few years, but that was needed to keep it up to state standards, Bensinger said.
Possible reuse of the massive facility is being considered.
Chuck Felton, a Texas resident who spent some of his teen years as a TB patient at the Cresson San, said the aging population of Pennsylvania could be a good fit to have the prison rehabilitated into elderly housing.
Etta Albright, a former nurse at the facility when it was the Cresson Center, thinks the isolated, tranquil location could be ideal for treating youth offenders.
State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, said with Route 22 nearly passing through the prison grounds and providing a link to Route 219 and Interstate 99, an industrial or business park may work.
Pasquerilla said it’s hard to think of any reuse for the prison itself.
“I wouldn’t be optimistic about a reuse for it, but it certainly has good infrastructure,” he said.
Without a rapid reuse of the facilities at Cresson and Greensburg, any savings the Department of Corrections hopes to see could be eaten up quickly.
Estimates are that it will cost the state $5 million a year to mothball the two prisons, Bensinger said.
Still at issue is how Cresson Township, which provides millions of gallons of water to the prison monthly, and Cresson Borough, which provided sewer service, will be able to avoid passing rate increases on to residential and business customers.
“When you take a huge customer like that out of the equation, what impact will it have on the rates?” asked Cresson Township Supervisor Chairman Scott Decoskey.
A water tank on prison grounds belonging to and maintained by the Cresson Township Municipal Authority will be permitted to remain with a right of way agreement granted to the township, corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said in an email Friday.