A panel focused on revving up Cranberry Township's economic future is pushing the township supervisors to take a vote on whether a county-wide recycling center can be located at the former Sears automotive department area at the Cranberry mall.

The township's Economic Development Committee vigorously discussed the recycling center issue Tuesday as Erik Johnson, Venango County senior planner and recycling coordinator, answered a flurry of questions about the project at the panel's monthly meeting.

The county received a $345,502 state grant in October 2018 to equip and develop a recycling center that would serve residents county-wide. The stipulation attached to the grant required the county to have the facility up and running by January 2021.

Over a period of several months, the county pinpointed the former Sears automotive center at the mall as the ideal location for a recycling facility, one that would handle typical recycling functions as well as special collections for electronics, hazardous waste materials and tires.

In place at the vacant Sears location are loading docks and sufficient space to set up a center that would be staffed as well as feature security lighting and fencing.The Sears location had been vacant since the retailer closed its Cranberry store in mid-2017.

However, the proposed mall location requires a zoning change that would allow a recycling facility to be established in a C-2, or commercial, zoned area.

Township supervisors Harold Best, Fred Buckholtz and Jerry Brosius balked at the request, which also failed to get an endorsement from the township planning commission, at a meeting in July. The question became moot when no motion for a vote was made by the supervisors.

"I want the supervisors to vote nay or yay on whether it will be at the mall or not because, quite frankly, we are out of time," said Venango County Commissioner Vincent Witherup, who attended the committee meeting to press for the mall option. "I don't care how it is done ... but plan B will probably not be in Cranberry Township. We can't be messing around for the next three years."

Johnson, reiterating to the panel that "the county has always felt Cranberry Township was the ideal location," said the commissioners continue to prefer the Cranberry Mall location. The reasons include the former auto center requires minimal upgrades, the mall owners are in favor of a lease agreement, and the location "could work in conjunction with increased traffic at the struggling mall."

Witherup said the county's consultants working on the recycling complex also have endorsed the preferred site.

"They said that recycling programs across the state would be jealous of such a site," said Witherup.

Johnson said measures would be taken, including round-the-clock security, specific posted hours of operation, and screening/fencing, to dissuade any illegal dumping at the site.

He said indoor patrons at mall businesses would not be exposed to sights or odors associated with the center because "regular recycling would be outside the mall, inside a fenced area where the bins will be."

The only drop-off times for recyclables would be during days the center is manned.

'It is all on the county'

Cranberry Township manager Chad Findlay said the supervisors had concerns about visibility and the lack of 24-hour manned service at the mall site.

"They are not opposed by any means to having it in Cranberry Township but they believe it should perhaps be at the industrial park, somewhere not visible from the roadway," said Findlay, adding there was worry, too, that individuals may "come when it is closed and then throw their stuff on the ground."

"I don't want to see the same mistakes we made (the installation of recycling bins at the township building), 13 years ago," said Findlay in response to excessive litter on the property.

As to the township's industrial park, it is not suitable because of the associated costs to build a new facility, pegged at $1.5 million by the county engineer, rather than use an existing building, said Witherup.

"I don't think we'll have the problems we're talking about," said Witherup. "Some of these things we are over-thinking."

Johnson added that any difficulties could be "mitigated pretty quickly" and said, "It is a county facility and so it is all on the county, maintenance and operation. The township would not have to maintain it."

In response to a question whether other safeguards should be in place in order to convince the supervisors to approve the mall site, Witherup said, "The county commissioners would take any of those issues very seriously. We don't want to slow the image of Venango County. I believe this would spur other adjunct business. And I think the mall must open up to do more than retail, as other malls are doing across the country."

In urging the committee to press the supervisors for a vote on the mall site, Witherup said, "If the township wants this recycling center, and the county wants it, we can work out all the details."

Voting unanimously to ask the supervisors to revisit the zoning change related to a recycling center at the mall were committee members Barrie Brancato, Bonnie Summers, Betsy Kellner, Tim Hurley, Jeff Clark, Bill Vonada, Lisa Groner, Susan Williams and Christine Bingman.

In wording the motion, the committee emphasized it "strongly recommended" the zoning change to allow for the mall location.

The request will be presented to the supervisors at their meeting on Thursday, Sept. 26.

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