Businessman blasts Luzerne County Council’s failure to accept juvenile detention center purchase offer

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | October 12th, 2016 8:07 pm

WILKES-BARRE — Jim Casey said he’s stunned a majority of Luzerne County Council members did not embrace his proposal to buy the deteriorating former juvenile detention center for $20,000.

The three-story structure, which sits atop a hill overlooking the county prison on Water Street, has been empty since 2002. A sale would put the property back into productive use and save the county an estimated $400,000 to tear down the structure, the county administration said.

Casey has operated a residential program for men recovering from drug and alcohol addiction in the city’s downtown for 16 years and wanted to add a similar program for women in the former detention center.

“It boggles my mind. It befuddles me. It really does,” he said Wednesday, a day after the council failed to act on a proposed sales agreement. “They have a white elephant.”

The council had tabled the matter in September due to some concerns about the feasibility of the proposed project. Several citizens also urged the council to re-list the property seeking higher purchase offers.

Council Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck placed Casey’s offer back on Tuesday’s agenda at management’s request, but the motion died.

McClosky Houck said Wednesday she understands Casey’s concern and supports the sale. However, she said she is powerless to act unless others advance the proposal.

Eugene Kelleher, one of the council members who have not voted in support, said Wednesday he advocates Casey’s drug rehabilitation concept but wants to verify the project is doable and would not pose a security risk to the adjacent prison. Kelleher said he doesn’t want to unload the property, only to have it remain in limbo.

Casey, who operates the state-licensed, 50-bed James A. Casey House next to the federal courthouse on South Main Street, stressed he was the lone respondent to the county’s request for buyers and said he doubts anyone else would want to invest in the site because the building is rundown and has a prison view.

His purchase offer technically expired in August, but he said he will honor it through the end of October.

The detention property has high weeds and has become an eyesore, said Casey, who plans to approach city officials at their next public meeting to press them to examine the site and order the county to correct any deficiencies.

Casey said the building is infested with pigeons due to broken windows. Trespassers have removed copper and vandalized the structure, he said.

“I really am dismayed the city hasn’t condemned that building, which is along a gateway to the city,” he said.

He said he plans to create 30 jobs at the site and would provide a needed service. He initially considered seeking a tax-break on the property because taxing bodies have provided such incentives to some other developers but said he did not want to shortchange fellow property owners.

“I’m putting my money on the line, and some council members do not understand. I’ve been a very compassionate and understanding citizen of this community,” Casey said.

The old Luzerne County juvenile detention center in Wilkes-Barre. old Luzerne County juvenile detention center in Wilkes-Barre.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.