July 31, 2017 — I can be pretty tough on the Pennsylvania Legislature, especially in this space. But over the past few months, I’ve had a chance to see two of our legislators take on a difficult issue and handle it with skill and aplomb.
Last year, the Commonwealth announced that it would be closing the Hamburg Center, which is in Windsor Township just outside the borough of Hamburg. The center has served various purposes since it opened as a state hospital in 1914. Today it serves as a facility housing about 80 people with significant intellectual disabilities.
The closing of the facility represents a challenge for the people of northern Berks County. Hamburg Center’s 278 acres and 39 buildings make it a significant physical presence in the area and about 350 people are employed there.
State Representative Jerry Knowles and State Senator David Argall have done a great job of bringing together community groups to think about the future of the facility. They’ve hosted a series of meetings, both public and private, to seek the opinions of neighbors, countywide groups like the Community Foundation, county government, and the Greater Reading Chamber and Economic Development Corporation. Based on that input, a plan is starting to develop.
The first and highest priority is obviously the health and safety of the center’s residents. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services is developing a discharge plan to transfer the remaining residents to different facilities. This is a long process involving the residents’ families and is why the center is unlikely to close until the end of 2018.
The community group that I participate with on this subject is thinking about how the facility could be reused or repurposed. A significant portion of the property is likely to remain in agricultural production (that’s mostly the portion north of Route 78).
The buildings represent a huge challenge. They’re old hospital buildings and it’s not immediately clear what can be done with them. The community has a lot of ideas (my favorite is an indoor water park), but there is a lot of work to be done in finding a use for these. So far, the people from the Department of General Services and the Department of Human Services have been very helpful, but we’ve been limited in our ability to even tour the inside of the facilities out of respect for the current residents.
Communities everywhere are dealing with the challenges of repurposing facilities from malls to old hospitals. Those processes don’t always go well and often exclude the most disadvantaged stakeholders. Senator Argall and Representative Knowles are doing an exemplary job of engaging the community and bringing in resources, and their efforts are likely to lead to a good — if yet unforeseen — outcome.
Kevin K. Murphy, President
Berks County Community Foundation