LIMERICK -- Both the local economy and natural environment could benefit from preserving a portion of the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital, a proponent told the Rotary Club recently.
Nathaniel Guest, the face behind a growing grassroots movement called "Preserve Pennhurst," spoke at a Spring-Ford Rotary Club luncheon last week.
A private company purchased 111 acres of the East Vincent property in February. Although no development plans have been forwarded to the township, it is believed that businessman Richard Chakejian is considering tearing down all the abandoned buildings at Pennhurst.
Guest began his remarks by saying the preservation paradigm must shift. Maintaining older structures should not be viewed as a luxury, he said.
Preservation is not "mutually exclusive to development," meaning communities don't need to pick one over the other.
He listed several economic benefits of maintaining existing structures, such as an estimate that 70 percent of restoration costs at Pennhurst would go toward labor.
"While we buy materials from afar -- the HVAC system might be from Ohio or Japan and the lumber from Oregon or Canada -- we buy the services of the plumber, electrician, and carpenter from down the street," Guest said.
Money for most materials leaves town, "but the plumber gets a haircut on the way home, buys groceries, and joins the YMCA -- recirculating that paycheck within the community," he said.
The jobs created for such projects tend to be well-paying ones, and investment in local restoration tends to stabilize local economies during slow times and encourage outside investment, Guest continued.
Every hour, one acre of land is developed and lost to sprawl in the greater Philadelphia region, he said.
"Yet studies show that most of this development will -- when viewed in the longterm -- cost more for public services like utilities, police, fire and schools than it could ever generate in tax revenue," he said.
As for the environment, preservation helps cut back on waste and energy consumption.
"The greenest building is really one that's already built," Guest said.
When a building is destroyed, thousands of dollars of "embodied energy" are thrown away. This waste is then trucked to one of the area landfills. According to Preservation North Carolina, the demolition of domestic structures creates 115 pounds of waste per square foot on average.
New materials used for redeveloping the site would likely be "heavily energy consumptive," Guest said.
He compared the additional demand for aluminum to something more parochial.
"If we were to tear down one-third of the administration building ... we've wiped out months of diligent recycling by the community," he said.
The 1994 Pottsgrove High School graduate has a message for any developer who tears down old buildings and calls himself environmentally friendly.
"You're really just a fraud," he said.
Those looking for a get-rich-quick idea, preservation is really not an option, Guest said. However, over the long term, it can be profitable.
"Let's be clear: I'm not advocating no growth. And I'm not advocating for preservation in all circumstances. But all evidence suggests that the choice is rarely just one or the other," he said. "Again, good growth incorporates preservation. Such is the case at Pennhurst. It is seldom necessary to chose between preservation and new construction, We can do both."
Earlier in this presentation, a former Pennhurst worker addressed the audience of business people, attorneys and residents.
Greg Pirmann worked at Pennhurst from 1969 to 1986 in various capacities, including special assistant to the superintendent.
"I decided to join this effort because there is a really important message to be remembered about Pennhurst," he said at the luncheon.
Make no mistake about it, the East Vincent state school and hospital became "exactly what society chose it to be," Pirmann said. Pennsylvania's Legislature provided funding for an institution that served as a "place to segregate mental defectives."
Pennhurst operated between 1908 to 1987 as a facility for the severely mentally disabled. Pirmann, who also worked as a caseworker there, said hospitals like Pennhurst were used to segregate and warehouse people who were deemed to have no value to society.
"When we can make those people 'not us,' we can allow terrible things to happen to them," he said.
While skin color and ethnicity are used by some to create the perception of "others," illegal immigrants are perhaps the best example today of how society treats groups that are perceived to be less worthy.
"When we can make someone less human, we can justify almost anything," Pirmann said.
Conditions at the hospital grew more crowded over the years as residents-to-employees ratios ballooned. Yet many capable residents cared for one another, Pirmann said.
By preserving the administration building, the community
would have a lasting reminder and might be less likely to make the same mistakes seen at Pennhurst, he concluded.
Said Guest, "The places we preserve nurture the human spirit, and provide inspiration and stability amid change. And it is true, preservation provides on the most fundamental level a stabilizing and inspiring influence in a world in flux," Guest said.
On Sept. 12, the East Vincent township building will be open to the public for a town hall meeting on Pennhurst and a related art exhibit. The building is located at 262 Ridge Road (Route 23). A start time will be announced.
In the coming weeks, Guest hopes to meet with the developers. He has received letters of support from several lawmakers, including state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-19th. The East Vincent Board of Supervisors has indicated it won't take any action on this issue until development plans are announced.
Find out more on the Web at www.preservepennhurst.com.