Despite setbacks, Cornplanter project is moving forward

Venango County Economic Development Authority executive director Emily Lewis says that despite some minor hiccups at the Cornplanter Square site in Oil City the last few months, the project is “absolutely not cursed.”

“She’s an old sturdy building,” Lewis said.

The county took on the Cornplanter Square project at the landmark bank building at Seneca and Center streets with the hopes of developing an inviting space for not just businesses to grow and local residents to visit, but as a beacon for those passing through.

“That’s what I love about the back of the building…it faces Route 8 and people driving through can look over and think ‘wow, what is that,'” Lewis said.

The artist rendering of the back of the building will see Oil City spelled out in giant red letters vertically down the side of the building. Lewis hopes that one day an elegant balcony will be built off the same, side leading out from the second floor.

But the building still has to overcome some obstacles before it can make its glamorous transformation.

The demolition of interior spaces began in April, and while Lewis said much of the “1970s” of the building has been stripped away, minor inconveniences have reared their ugly heads almost from the start.

The first of those obstacles was a flood in the basement.

“The city had to turn water on for the building in order for (asbestos) abatement to begin, and over (a weekend) a board fell from the basement ceiling onto a pipe which burst and flooded the basement,” Lewis said.

Luckily, nothing that had been in the basement had been worth saving and was scheduled to be removed anyway, Lewis said.

“So then there was the fire,” Lewis said.

On July 25, demolition crews had been working on the fifth floor with a grinder when a stray spark fell into a pile of old insulation.

“It never caught fire, but it was smoldering, enough that smoke could be seen from the building and people called it in,” Lewis said.

Once again, there was no damage to the building or anything of value.

Then came the power problems.

Because of the close call with the fire, fire crews advised that the building’s power should be turned off for the day. Then, a short time later, demolition crews accidentally cut into power lines, leaving the building dark once again.

The third strike came when a mason chopped into the supply.

Lewis, for her part, is able to laugh these instances off in hindsight.

“It’s just like with any renovation, there’s going to be problems, but this is a 50,000-square-foot historic building,” she said.

In the grand scheme of things, Lewis said, renovation is going pretty smoothly.

Another ongoing obstacle has been the roof.

“Sometime in the past the roof had been installed improperly so the building experiences some leaking,” Lewis said.

KLA Roofing, of Everett, was awarded the contract to fix the problem, but that work is now on hold due to a disagreement in the contract.

“KLA bid under the assumption they could use PVC (piping) throughout the building, but clearly (the bid specifications) say all PVC storm drains above ground must be cast iron,” Lewis said at last week’s Economic Development Authority meeting.

Lewis told the authority that KLA was looking into the matter to go for arbitration, but the authority’s solicitor had advised against it as the legal costs associated with the case would be unnecessary funds wasted.

“If they were confused about the wording (in the specifications), they should have filed an RFI (request for information),” county planning commission executive director Jason Ruggiero said last week.

The cost to do the project with cast iron piping is a $40,000 change from the original bid. KLA has proposed the authority pay half of that.

Lewis said both KLA and the county are committed to “being amicable” and want the matter resolved as quickly and painlessly for all involved.

Roadblocks aside, Lewis is looking toward the future for the building.

“We’re really focusing on fundraising, fundraising,” she said.

The next “phase” of the project is set to go out for bid in the next few weeks when a contract will be awarded to replace all the windows and exterior doors.

When that phase and the roof work are completed, the building will be “completely sealed,” Lewis said.

From there, the focus will be on “breathing life” into the first floor to make it ready for a partner to come in and build what the authority hopes to be a brewery.

Lewis said the activity, whether it be fires, floods or general construction, is good for the building because it lets people know something is happening there.

“Once you see that activity occurring, then you know something’s happening,” Lewis said.

Meanwhile, demolition crews are uncovering long-lost hidden gems.

“I understand that it’s things like the fires that people get to see, but no one’s there when we uncover a beautiful marble floor and get to say ‘wow look at that’, Lewis said.

For now, Lewis and the authority will continue to focus on finding and repurposing those hidden gems and deciding what the next project will be.