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City looks to divvy up COVID money

Council weighs projects to spend nearly $1 million

A major renovation of the downtown Transportation Center is among projects that city officials may fund with help from $966,000 in Community Development Block Grant money for COVID-19 recovery that was recently allocated by the federal government.

The project could include roof and window replacements along with other maintenance work, plus creation of a center for taking coronavirus samples to help increase local testing capacity, a new Emergency Operations Center, an education and training center for city employees that could double as rental space for downtown business meetings and smaller offices, Fire Chief Tim Hileman said at a virtual City Council meeting this week.

The current EOC and training center are part of City Council chambers on Washington Avenue.

The new facilities would be placed in the 11th Avenue end of the building, consuming part of the large waiting room along with rental spaces recently occupied by Zoe’s Cafe and The Vineyard Church, according to city Community Development Director Lee Slusser.

“There’s a lot of underutilized space,” Slusser said.

Ticket offices on the 10th Avenue side of the building leased to Amtrak and Greyhound would remain, Slusser said.

The work would involve removal and construction of partitions, installation of stadium seating in a classroom and installation of a “fiber-optic backbone,” Slusser said.

The maintenance concerns include leaks in the main roof, which is under the parking garage, and on a part of the roof of the 10th Avenue crossover that

wasn’t repaired recently, according to Slusser.

The cost of the project is uncertain, but in a recent walkthrough, City Manager Ken Decker did rough calculations that easily totaled about $1 million, just for maintenance items, Decker said.

Approval of the Altoona Redevelopment Authority, which is responsible for Transportation Center maint­enance, may be needed.

The guidelines for spending the CDBG money are still unclear, although basic program rules are probably going to be “in play,” Slusser said.

Generally, CDBG money provides help to people with low-to-moderate incomes.

It’s not certain whether the rules governing the special COVID-19 allocation will take into account that the traditional use of the previous year’s tax returns to determine eligibility could be unfair, as someone employed in 2019 but now without a job due to COVID-19 is currently in poorer financial condition, Slusser said.

There’s also uncertainty about how closely the tie to COVID-19 must be for work to be judged eligible, Slusser said.

And there’s uncertainty about how far into the future the potential COVID-19 ties may extend, he said.

Presently, there’s no need for another Altoona testing site, but it’s hard to tell when one might be needed, especially if there’s a resurgence of the pandemic, he said.

The state is looking even now to ramp up testing to help determine when it’s safe to reopen the economy.

Guidance in the use of the Department of Housing and Urban Development funding is “coming out of Washington,” Slusser said.

Another possible use of the COVID-19 block grant money is for renovation of the former J&J Recycling property on Margaret Avenue, which the city bought recently.

The city obtained a grant to convert the site into a public recycling center, but then backed off that idea and returned the grant, for fear such a project would detract from the appeal of the neighborhood, which is improving due to a variety of recent development.

The city now may renovate the property to use for the foreseeable future as a storage facility for the Fire Department’s Hazmat truck, trailer and equipment and possibly for overflow evidence from the police department’s evidence storage room.

The Margaret Avenue project is probably a better investment than the proposed $210,000 construction of a hazmat storage building next to the Juniata fire station, where there’s really not enough room, according to Decker.

Staff will devise a “rough budget” for the project to present to City Council.

In addition to the Transportation Center and Margaret Avenue proposals, there are three other “internal” proposals for the COVID money: automation of interior doors in City Hall, to eliminate touching of door handles; an accessibility project at the police station and the purchase of radios for the Public Works Department, according to Slusser.

“External” proposals are: money for housing and for food for the homeless and for a micro-grant program for small businesses, as requested by Blair County Community Action; money for food and rent for people in need, as requested by Catholic Charities; money for feeding people in need, as requested by the Nehemiah Project; and money for grants and working capital loans, as requested by the Altoona Blair County Development Corp., Slusser said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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