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Pottstown Mercury: EPA helping convert Mercury building into 'boutique hotel

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Pottstown Mercury
By Evan Brandt
June 10, 2020

POTTSTOWN — The federal government is going to help cover the cost of converting the former Mercury newspaper building into a "boutique hotel."

Andrew Wheeler, the top administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was in town Wednesday to announce a $227,000 loan from the agency's brownfields program.

Often associated with former industrial sites, the brownfields program applies to the cleanup and re-use of any building with environmental problems, Wheeler explained.

They money for the Mercury building will be used to remove asbestos tiles from the three floors of the building.

"I'm a big fan of older buildings," said Wheeler, who said he grew up in Ohio and watched his hometown, a former industrial powerhouse, fall into disrepair and older buildings torn down and replaced with "used car lots."

"I see so much new industry going up in agricultural fields and we have to get away from abandoning our cities and towns, which is why I'm so proud of our brownfields program," Wheeler said.

Begun in 1995, the brownfields program has spent $1.6 billion and is responsible for the creation of 160,000 jobs across the country, said Wheeler, adding "it's an incredible success story."

"So I get a big thrill when I see a building like this that's going to be re-used," he said.

"What Pottstown is doing now, my old hometown should have done 20 years ago," Wheeler said.

April Barkasi is the woman who founded and is the CEO of Cedarville Engineering Group, LLC — which renovated and owns the BB&T Bank building at High and Hanover streets.

She is also the new owner of The Mercury building and the project is an indication of Pottstown's "continued momentum."

"Pottstown is on its way to being more than it was before," said Barkasi, who added that the renovation and re-use of The Mercury building nevertheless required federal funding.

"To do a project like this, the numbers have to work," she said.

The $227,000 will come from a revolving loan fund, which means Barkasi will have to pay the money back, and it will then be used to help fund a different brownfields project.

That kind of activity can attract investment from the private sector, said Wheeler. 

"President Trump's tax law created opportunity zones," said Wheeler. Pottstown has two.

"Montgomery County has 56 brownfields and 21 opportunity zones, so there is incredible room for investment," said Wheeler.

Jerry Nugent, the executive director of the Montgomery County Redevelopment Authority, said EPA funding is often used to do environmental assessments of former industrial and urban sites to determine if there is environmental contamination, a cost many developers cannot factor into their budgets.

The EPA helped with the redevelopment of the top floors of the bank building Barkasi's engineering firm now occupies.

It was also a factor in the redevelopment of the former PECO sub-station in Riverfront Park into the new home of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, as well as the clean-up of a former chemical warehouse that is now home to the North Hall of Montgomery County community College's Pottstown campus, said Peggy Lee-Clark, executive director of Pottstown Area Industrial Development.

The EPA will also help pay for the environmental testing and clean-up of the former Pottstown Plating Works at the corner of South Washington Street and Industrial Highway, said Nugent.

"So we're going to be very busy in Pottstown for a long time," said Nugent.

"It was like they put their pencils down and everyone walked away. The building was full of refuse," Barkasi said. Pictured here is the last newsroom to occupy The Mercury building.

Aside from removing the asbestos tiles, there is still plenty of money to be spent renovating the former newspaper building.

Although a new roof was put on The Mercury building before she bought it, Barkasi said it was left full of "refuse."

"It's like everyone just put their pencils down and walked away," she said of the building's interior, which was filled with desks, old computers and newspaper files.

A non-profit firm, Cedars and Sprouts, took on the clean-out of the building, trying to recycle as much of the equipment as possible, she said.

The Mercury building being constructed in 1925.

Additionally, some carpet and paneling, unique in color and texture to 1970s building standards will be removed.

"But the building has good bones," Barkasi told Wheeler.

She said it will take 18 to 24 months for the redevelopment of the building to be complete.


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