Published in the Courier News on July 7, 2003
Proposals could save Muhlenberg
and build new schools
By BERNICE PAGLIA
PLAINFIELD -- A pair of proposals have been announced that could save Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, build a new middle school and help bolster a West End neighborhood.
The proposals were announced last week, and one already has support from hospital officials and Assemblyman Jerry Green.
The other proposal needs support from both the City Council and Board of Education and would link private development with planned school facilities to enhance a West End neighborhood.
The planned middle school is part of both proposals, but school board president Robert Darden said the board as a whole hasn't discussed either.
Two state programs are involved in the proposals. Green said Thursday talks have begun with Gov. James E. McGreevey and state agencies on a "school renaissance Zone" plan that would put the new middle school on the Muhlenberg campus and bring in as much as $150 million to modernize the hospital and retire its $24 million debt.
The "demonstration project" proposal is a chance to have the middle school, a new administration building and a private project fast-tracked for construction, Epic Group vice president Joel Lizotte told the council.
The school board held a series of community talks last year on where to put the new middle and elementary schools. Only the middle school site, on South Second Street between Plainfield and Grant avenues, won board approval in January.
The district received state approval two years ago for $185 million in new school construction, including the middle school, four new elementary schools, replacement of two elementary schools and renovations to 10 schools.
Donald Moore, a city resident who is in charge of design and construction for Abbott districts in the New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation, said four or five projects could be under construction next year.
Work has begun on a "swing school" in a four-story building on West Front Street where students could go while their schools are being replaced. Clinton School students will be the first to use it while their school is demolished and a new one is built, he said.
Moore said the school construction can leverage other kinds of development in the city. He called Green's bid to link the middle school with saving Muhlenberg "a brilliant move on his part."
The South Second Street site would require land acquisition and a cleanup that Moore said has been stalled, even though the city received $1 million to do it. Using the hospital campus, or adjacent school-owned land at Hub Stine Field, might be easier.
Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, a board member at Muhlenberg, said the hospital told the board about the proposal at a briefing Wednesday in advance of Green's announcement.
On the other proposal, McWilliams said he asked his staff to get more information on the pediatric day-care facility suggested as a part of the demonstration project and to clarify what the city would have to do to take part.
McWilliams said that if the school board decides to build the middle school at Muhlenberg, the city could keep South Second Street for industrial use to bring in taxes. But he said the community also should have a say.
"If the community has bought into a particular scenario, you'd have to go back to the community and get a consensus," he said.
But Green said Thursday, "If you're going to save a community institution, who's going to challenge that?"
The hospital also has been seeking state permission for a cardiac surgery unit to bolster its viability. Green said when he became ill after a hectic primary election, the need for such a facility came home to him. He said he had his son drive him to a full cardiac care facility in Newark, where he had angioplasty surgery to repair a blocked artery.
"My mind is made up," Green said. "I'm not getting involved with local officials. If I can't put this proposal together, Muhlenberg is heading toward getting closed."
Bernice Paglia can be reached at (908) 707-3137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Sidebar]At a glance:
* School renaissance zone: A state-designated locale for revitalization through coordinated planning of state agencies with a school facilities project eligible for state support as its focal point.
Gov. James E. McGreevey announced in March that revitalization of a former factory in Trenton would be the first school renaissance zone. The former Roebling steel rope facility will become a school for grades K-8 and will complement existing neighborhood revitalization. In April, McGreevey announced the second zone in Neptune. There, an abandoned warehouse will become an early childhood center to complement a 700-student school for grades K-8.
The Plainfield proposal would link a new middle school with revitalization of Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center.
* Demonstration project: Includes an Abbott district school facility and community design features and is tied to local redevelopment. The Plainfield proposal includes a new administration building and middle school already approved for state school facilities funding. The proposal also includes an "academic walkway" linking Washington Elementary and Hubbard Middle schools and could be tied to a privately developed day-care facility for children up to age 4 who have chronic health conditions. Thirty districts are eligible to submit proposals by July 31, and six will be chosen. Designation would speed up construction.
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