Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Institutions for Sale: Your childhood school, your family church–going once, going twice.

William Penn High School

The neoclassical lintel carved “INDVSTRY” guards a door covered in peeling plywood. Inside, “AMOS” spray-painted his name on an unbroken windowpane. Outside, “L,” “D” and “M” painted their initials on the columns. The fire extinguisher lying in the grass adds a touch of irony, given the Harrisburg Fire Bureau’s growing familiarity with the vacant hulk once known as William Penn High School.

Harrisburg isn’t the only city struggling with obsolete institutional properties for sale, but a sudden flood of churches has further saturated the market. Can outdated people-gathering places be revived? Proponents hope the right alignment of creative ideas and hefty funding brings new life to old icons.


History Spared

Once, they anchored neighborhoods and hummed with activity. Now, William Penn High School is covered in vines. Choirs aren’t singing at Camp Curtin Memorial-Mitchell United Methodist Church and others closed by the Susquehanna United Methodist Conference. Zembo Shrine is active but back on the market after a sale fell through. Bishop McDevitt High School has a new owner, but its status is unclear. [Ed. note: after this story went to press, a development group announced a proposal for the Bishop McDevitt site.]

Bill Gladstone of the Bill Gladstone Group of NAI CIR is marketing six of the Methodist churches, among the many faith-based buildings crowding the real estate listings. Smaller churches tend to sell quickly, he said.

“Everybody’s starting new congregations,” Gladstone said. “They want to move out of the Holiday Inn.”

But not selling are “the bigger churches with no parking.” Many suffer from long-deferred maintenance. Inquiries trickle in, only to confront zoning and parking issues. One woman wanted to paint a church white and “attract thousands of people to come to arts events.”

Some ideas “will work,” said Gladstone, “and some won’t.”

The vast, ornate, non-ADA compliant Zembo Shrine attracted investors who saw an ideal entertainment venue—until they uncovered challenges in booking shows, Gladstone said.

“We’ve had activity,” he said. “We haven’t found quite the right buyer for it yet.”

Historic Harrisburg Association helped keep the doors open at historic Grace Church on State Street and is “trying to help find sympathetic buyers, at least for the churches that have history and architectural attributes,” says Executive Director David Morrison.

Gamut Theatre in the former First Church of God and State Street Academy of Music in the former St. Lawrence Chapel demonstrate that repurposing historic churches “becomes such a win-win, because it’s good for the building,” Morrison said. “It’s good for the organization that’s going to inhabit the building. A lot of expenses were spared, and history was spared.”

Success starts with a realistic—translation, “low”—selling price, to make up for the buyer’s upgrades, Morrison said. With institutional landmarks, “their economic value is one thing, and their community value is another thing. If you make the numbers work, there are investors and developers interested.”

Also required: time and creativity. Midtown Harrisburg’s COBA apartments sat empty for three decades before a developer acquired the building for $1, assembled the financing, reconfigured the layout and built a new elevator shaft. The result: 27 apartments in walkable Midtown.

“Thirty years went by before anybody figured that out,” Morrison said.


Offers of Interest

An old school—all those classrooms panting for conversion into lofts. What could be better? Just pay no attention to the 1,200-seat auditorium. And the gymnasium. And the cafeteria.

Philadelphia-based, multi-state developer Pennrose has made it work at Steelton’s Felton Lofts, converted from the historic Steelton High School (albeit after stepping in when the original developer backed out).

Nearly half of Pennrose’s 250 communities are the products of adaptive reuse—buildings that had “become rundown, dilapidated, an eyesore and deterrent to the values of the community,” said President Mark Dambly. “You want to make sure you have community support, because you’re going to have challenges and obstacles to overcome in order to be successful.”

Collaboration opens doors to resources and such municipal considerations as free property acquisition, waived fees, access to state and federal grants and financing, or relief from zoning and parking restrictions, Dambly said.

As for those spaces that held generations of kids staging “Oklahoma” or eating tater tots, “you want to make them generate something economically if you can, and if not, socially,” Dambly said. The Felton Lofts auditorium leans toward social, hosting community events and support services as amenities for residents.

On the revenue-generating side, look to Scranton, where the state-of-the-art Theater at North hosts such shows as an Elton John tribute tour and Judy Collins live in concert—all in a jazz-era junior high school converted in 2015 to senior-living apartments. Remarkably, the developer was Goodwill Industries of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

As for William Penn High School, now about 10 years on the market, owner Harrisburg School District “renegotiated” the listing with Landmark Commercial Realty in October, said Assistant Superintendent Christopher Celmer. Agent Seymour Barget is accepting and vetting offers.

By early 2020, the district hopes to “have a few serious offers of interest on the property that we’ll be able to sit down and evaluate,” said Celmer. “It could be a sale. It could be someone that would want to do a lease to purchase. There could be a multitude of options.”

With an active school, Camp Curtin Academy, adjoining the site, the district must also “make sure there’s a clear understanding” of boundary lines on the 25-acre property.

“If there’s an ability (for the buyer) to keep some of that history of the building, we would love to see that memorialized—what that building meant for generations that came through,” he said.


Mixed Uses

Re-imagination is hard, but it can zero in on filling community needs, said Harrisburg Economic Development Director Amma Johnson.

“Number one is mixed-use,” she said—those fashionable combos of retail and residential. Farther from the downtown-Midtown core, though, conversions could be “way more residential” until vendors dream up creative approaches to doing business.

The appetite for large institutions is primarily among “developers who have deep pockets and are creative in utilizing mixed-use space for residents—live-work, live-work-play,” added Harrisburg Historic Preservation Specialist and Archivist Frank Grumbine.

He knows, though, that those visions stumble at the sight of Gothic churches. Pittsburgh’s awesome Church Brew Works showcases potential, but “a really cool use for a big space like that is really difficult.”

“Their long-term preservation and maintenance are concerns for anybody who would purchase them,” he said.

Methodist Conference Harrisburg Superintendent Rev. Barry Robinson agrees with the primary challenges of selling large churches—“selling the buildings at a fair price over the cost of keeping them,” plus barriers due to size and condition.

“We would like for the buildings to continue to be used for houses of worship or faith-based ministries,” he said. “However, we would not deter anyone from buying the buildings for other uses.”

The city is “very flexible” about changing permitted uses while being “sensitive to the neighborhoods in which these properties reside,” Grumbine said.

Talks with developers are happening, but specifics are “still being formulated.”

“The most I can say is that the uses are mixed,” he said. “We’d like to see those buildings used as residential, commercial, even urban agriculture—a self-sustaining community within the city.”

Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Bryan Davis notes that developers are accustomed to relatively straightforward warehouse conversions, but repurposing unique spaces demands closer attention to the bottom line.

“It’s always nice if you’re able to find a buyer that also has a passion for historic preservation, so they have an appetite for this kind of investment,” he said. “They acknowledge the value. What that does is narrow the field of candidate buyers, which is not insurmountable.”

Neighborhoods “shudder” when beloved institutions close their doors, but Harrisburg’s monumental icons have potential, said Grumbine. William Penn is “so pretty.” And Zembo Shrine could “have a whole city within just that building.”

“There’s tons of opportunity,” he said. “It’s just who has the creativity and the money to figure it out.”

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