Former Warren college site to be marketed for new use

070617...R GATEWAY This is an exterior view of the former Eastern Gateway Community College campus on Main Street in downtown Warren. The building used to house Mickey’s Army-Navy Store. College officials decided to close the Warren campus in the spring, but the building’s owners plan to renovate it and market it for a new use, perhaps retail space.

WARREN — As students who attended Eastern Gateway Community College’s Warren location head back to school elsewhere, the property manager for the downtown building that last year housed the college said he will repair the space and begin marketing it for sale or lease.

Those plans probably will not include use as an educational facility.

“I think it probably makes most sense as a retail spot,” said Mike Perik, CEO of Higher Education Partners, or HEP, of Rhode Island, the company hired to manage the property at 231 Main St. SW, Warren, for owner STORE Master Funding VI LLC of Scottsdale, Ariz. Perik’s company also manages Eastern Gateway’s Valley Center at 101 E. Federal St. in Youngstown.

Whatever happens, Perik vowed it will not be allowed to turn to blight.

“We are not going to do that,” Perik said. “We don’t in any way want to contribute to an eyesore.”

The Warren location has stood empty since the school vacated it earlier this year following problems with the building’s condition, including the need for a new roof. In the spring the college first said it was seeking a new site in Trumbull County, but a few days later, it announced it would, instead, consolidate resources to expand its footprint in Youngstown.

‘MONEY PIT’

According to records obtained by the Tribune Chronicle, Sherrilyn Farkas VanTassel, legal counsel for the college, in a Feb. 9 email to Perik, described the Warren building as “a money pit that we need to get out of as soon as possible.”

Records from the Warren City Health District show a complaint was filed last year regarding sewage backup at the building. Health inspectors found “an accumulation of construction debris” and what appeared to be mold, according to a March 9, 2016, letter to the college. However, health officials said those issues were rectified.

Even so, a year later, the college’s board of trustees decided to discontinue operations at the Warren Center effective at the end of the spring 2017 semester.

Minutes from the board’s March 8 meeting state, “Unfortunately, due to the enormous work needed at the building it was appropriate to close that campus.”

Last week, Perik said his company was adamant they would be successful in completing necessary repairs this fall in order to prepare the property for a new use.

“The building probably has some maintenance that has to be done — leaky roof. Then I think what we are going to do is hire a local real estate agent to market it for sale,” Perik said, noting the location, parking availability and setup makes its most logical use a return to retail. “You don’t want to rent or display anything unless the building is in decent physical condition. I just heard recently that the roof had some problems and some possible mold issues.”

The building for decades previously housed Warren’s iconic Mickey’s Army-Navy store. STORE Master paid $510,000 for the building in 2014, according to property records maintained by Trumbull County. The owner also spent $5.5 million for the Youngstown structure that houses the Eastern Gateway’s Valley Center. STORE, which stands for single tenant occupancy real estate, is a real estate investment trust, commonly referred to as a REIT.

In 2014, because of space constraints at the school’s location in the Atrium Building, also in downtown Warren, officials formed the plan to move to the Main Avenue location. The move was completed in January 2015.

BOOMING IN YOUNGSTOWN

Earlier this year, Arthur Daly, EGCC’s Valley Center dean, said Warren students would be absorbed into Youngstown. Or, they would have the option to continue with online courses. Jimmie Bruce, college president, said declining enrollment in Warren, which had about 100 students, and ongoing problems with the building contributed to the decision to move.

Some 80 students who previously attended classes in Warren transferred to Youngstown this semester, calling for additional space at the Valley Center, Daly said. Classes began Aug. 21 for the fall semester. He said the college is considering expanding to the former Harshman law firm building at 101 E. Boardman St. in Youngstown.

On Aug. 23, the Western Reserve Port Authority agreed to spend up to $675,000 to purchase and renovate the Harshman building. The college would rent part of the building from the port authority, which would also occupy it. The port authority, which operates the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport, also locally operates an economic development arm.

Daly said the Youngstown campus is almost at capacity with some 1,100 students enrolled this semester, marking a 20 percent jump from last year.

“We are in the planning stages of offering more evening courses and weekend courses to meet the needs of our traditional and non-traditional students,” he said, adding the college plans to continue occupying its East Federal Street site. He said the college is looking to use space in the Harshman building for office and possibly classroom space.

PROPERTY TAX ISSUES

For now, county treasurer records indicate both the Warren and Youngstown properties are in arrears on property taxes.

County records show the property manager owed Trumbull County $20,636 in back taxes, according to the county auditor and treasurer offices. Trumbull County Treasurer Sam Lamancusa said Friday a $5,000 check had been received and the company had entered a payment plan for the back taxes.

Mahoning County Auditor records indicate the property owner also remains behind on taxes there. The property owner owes Mahoning County $164,292 for the Valley Center site. Although considered “late,” that amount has not been designated as “delinquent,” according to the county treasurer’s office.

HEP lists the college’s Valley Center as one of its success stories, opening in 2012 “With millions of dollars in investment from Higher Education Partners … .” The website states HEP provides “resources, expertise and innovative learning solutions” to community colleges and universities “seeking to expand and creatively tailor their services to their communities.”

Still, students attending the Warren Center were left disappointed by the college’s decision to vacate it.

Warren Councilwoman Helen Rucker, D-at large, who lobbied for Eastern Gateway to expand to Warren, said it was “difficult all along to get students to go” to the Warren Center.

“I don’t know, really, where we failed,” she said. “I think the outreach was lacking, that more could have been done to promote the college and all it had to offer. I still think it was a great idea to have a campus here, an option for local people, especially those who have transportation issues and can’t go to another campus. For them, Youngstown is a long way when they all struggle with transportation. This was an answer. Seeing it close was very disappointing.”

Eastern Gateway, based in Steubenville, was established in 1968 as a state, public, accredited institution.

vshank@tribtoday.com

blinert@tribtoday.com

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