Lebanon County Commissioners on Thursday approved the release of $750,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to Tec Centro Lebanon for the organization to house its new workforce empowerment center. 

The building, at 9 S. 9th St., Lebanon, will be used to provide opportunities for Lebanon County residents to receive community-based workforce language and training skills, according to Rafael Torres, founder/CEO of Tec Centro Lebanon. The building was formerly an Elks Lodge and more recently served as a church.

The former Elks Lodge near the corner of 9th & Cumberland streets is set to become a tech education center. The property is listed for sale, currently pending, by Iron Valley Real Estate of Lancaster. (MLS)

“This is a community project that will invest in the growth of the community,” said Torres. “And that is what we saw when we started to develop the WEPA Empowerment Center.”

The model Tec Centro Lebanon plans to use to build its program is the same as one that’s experienced great success in Lancaster County. 

“We chose to replicate a model that’s already in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s a successful model that’s been in existence for eight years,” said Torres. “It started in a small space and now, in 2022, it has expanded to a second location. … This has recently been replicated in Reading. The City of York is about ready to unveil its tech center next month and Lebanon is next.”

Torres said studies over the years indicate a need for an inclusive training center like the one his organization plans to launch in Lebanon County.

“This is for everyone to get the skills and to get the training that they need to become marketable members of our community,” he said. “I’ve had to continue the studies, and the numbers are not good. They talk about students in the local school district and 90 percent of them are barely making it, their homes are barely making it.”

Torres added that opportunities for adults to improve their lives will also exist at the workforce empowerment center.

“We need to take care of them and provide opportunities” for adult members of the community, he said. “It’s not that we’re doing the work for them, but bringing opportunities for them to get better. So we will look at them in a holistic way.”

Working in conjunction with other nonprofit organizations to address problems that exist outside the realm of workforce development, the goal is to make individuals whole so that they can provide for themselves and/or their families, Torres said.

“Remember I mentioned the word holistic?” he asked. “So we are going to have folks that are working in the building with the individual as a whole. It’s not just running them through the program and then forgetting about them. It’s about making sure that systems are in place. A full-time social worker in the building, a behavioral health specialist that will be available for the students.”

Torres added that people have to be “whole in their heads and their hearts” to be able to be productive members of the workforce, and that his holistic program will work to ensure that program participants are workforce ready.

In workforce development, Tec Centro Lebanon will provide training in construction, technology, and healthcare industries, among others, and a portion of the ARPA funds will be designated to provide a culinary arts kitchen.

Both sitting commissioners, Jo Ellen Litz (D) and chairman Robert Phillips (R), noted the requested amount was a big ask but added that the investment was one that they believe will address the workforce needs of Lebanon County businesses and provide area residents with the tools they need to obtain jobs that require skills training. (Applications are currently pending for the 24 Republicans vying to fill the third commissioner seat left vacant by the death of the late former commissioner Bill Ames in December.) 

County administrator Jamie Wolgemuth said that county solicitor David Warner requested, and the commissioners agreed as part of their vote, to include a lien agreement in case the organization does not meet federal guidelines tied to the use of ARPA funds. 

The bulk of the $26 million in ARPA funding received by the county was previously earmarked for a new 911 center and new radio system for emergency responders.

Read More: Commissioners respond to GOP move over property tax increase; plan in works for past year, defended as fiscally sound

In other business, the commissioners voted to approve a $48,000 funding grant request from Lebanon Valley Rail-Trail (LVRT) to the state for the purchase of a tractor ($38,400) and a storage shed ($9,600). LVRT will provide an additional $12,000 to cover the remainder of the combined purchase price.

LVRT volunteer Tom Kotay said the two tractors currently owned by LVRT are too small to cover the area that needs to be maintained. 

“As the trail grows, our two smaller tractors aren’t cutting it for safety reasons for our volunteers, and this purchase will also make maintenance easier,” said Kotay.

Kotay told the commissioners the current shed, which is located at the trailhead near Colebrook Road in the southern part of the county, will be moved to the northern end of the county near Jonestown. Once the shed has been moved, the smaller equipment will be stored at that location so that the tractors do not have to be constantly moved from one end of the county to the other.

After the vote to approve the application to the state Department of Community and Economic Development for the funding request, Kotay informed the commissioners that a portion of the trail will be closed for several weeks for the replacement of high-voltage transmission lines. 

Kotay said MetEd will close a one-mile section of the trail from Wilhelm Avenue to the Lebanon Valley Exposition Center & Fairgrounds to work on the electric lines. LVRT has yet to announce the dates that the trail will be closed, but Kotay said that a schedule for the closure will be shared through media releases and posted to the LVRT website when available. 

“We don’t know the duration yet, but it could be for several weeks,” he said. “That one-plus mile section of the trail is going to be closed for safety reasons. Those high-tension wires and poles that are out there are pretty significant when you go to replace them. I think they are 60-foot-high poles, and when you get a boom (crane) in there and are moving things around, you just can’t have rail trail users in the vicinity.”

Kotay added that once the work is done, it is believed that MetEd parent company First Energy will return to make improvements to that section of the trail. Although an agreement hasn’t been formalized, the power company tentatively plans to lay macadam, which Kotay said will significantly improve that section of the trail for users.

Commissioners also approved to sign an agreement between the county, the Lebanon County Housing & Redevelopment Authority and Lebanon Valley College for the administration of the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant in the amount of $1 million to the college for two projects.

The college plans to renovate the 20,938-square-foot Heilman Center and to relocate its C.U.R.E. clinic from downtown Annville to the center. LVC agreed to indemnify the county for repayment of any ineligible expenses or other potential financial exposure, which may be identified during an audit. 

“We’ve done several of these and have never had any ineligible expenses,” said Wolgemuth. “The reporting is pretty rigorous and it’s hard to imagine something slipping through and only being caught in the audit. There’s a ton of reporting that goes along with accounting for each dollar in RACP. In fact, things like the steel being from the United States all have to be demonstrated and reported.”

During the meeting, the commissioners also:

  • Received a fourth quarter report from the county’s pension fund investment firm and learned that the fund stands at over $139 million as of Feb.16.
  • Granted an extension to the Lebanon Valley Conservancy for a $15,000 Marcellus Shale grant request to put amenities into the John E. Wenger Memorial Park. The conservancy hopes to complete the planned work by the end of 2023.
  • Approved two hotel tax grant fund applications in the amount of $5,000 for the ambassador program at the Mount Gretna Visitors Center and $10,000 for the Community of Lebanon Association to place outdoor hanging baskets from Cumberland Street to Sixth Street in downtown Lebanon.
  • Tentatively approved the minutes of the Feb. 3 meeting, treasurer’s report, and various staff transactions and seminar requests, pending review.

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This article was updated to clarify that the Feb. 3 meeting minutes were tentatively approved pending further review.