A journey that took more than two decades to trek finally came full circle Monday afternoon with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the county's new 911 Center.
The building, formerly the Industrial Technical Education Center [ITEC], is located behind the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission, and Ridgmont Assisted Living Facility along Montmorenci Road.
The event boasted an attendees' list of nearly 75 representatives and dignitaries throughout the community as Michael A. McAllister, director of the county's emergency management department, discussed the history of Elk County's 911 Center.
"Back in 1990, we had the opportunity through an ARC grant to put in a 5-county microwave system-- one of the reasons behind this was always medical command-- ambulances able to talk to hospitals and so forth," McAllister said. "The state was able to give us around a $5 million grant to build tower sites in our region and we have with the five counties.
"Elk County received funding to put a tower site on top of Boot Jack mountain."
At that point county officials had to find a secure location for a 911 Center.
"[Officials] had to look and find a place-- and we found it," McAllister said. "It had nice elevation for the tower and along with it was a house, a 1950s-style ranch house that was already there.
"We built the tower and renovated the building because when we were looking at it, the plan was that we'd move into the building, renovate it enough for one year and then build an emergency services complex at the base of the tower."
Twenty-one years later, the 911 Center was still operating out of the 1950s-style ranch house.
"Year after year, we'd look and try to find funding sources to build or do something different, and the commissioners were always cost-effective and we were doing the job that needed to be done," McAllister said.
As their 911 telephone system was nearing its "end-of-life" point, it became apparent that any new system would not be compatible with the restraints of operating in an out-of-date structure.
"We started to look at the new phone system for 911 and we started to realize that the building itself would not support that type of an upgrade to the equipment," McAllister said. "We started to seriously look at the different places and locations where we'd be able to build.
"Later on, the county did an energy study where they looked at different ways to save energy throughout the county buildings and they realized that it was costing more in utilities for our 1950s-style ranch house than it was the Courthouse Annex itself."
For McAllister, that painstaking discovery was "the icing on the cake that said, 'Time to move on from this building.'"
"We worked with architects and consultants, and we found a nice piece of property to build on, all the drawings were in my hands and we were very excited, probably a month from breaking ground," McAllister said. "Then I get a phone call from [former Elk County Commissioner] Ron Beimel asking if we'd like to look at the ITEC building on Montmorenci. My heart fell to the ground and rolled across the floor-- I had the plans for a brand-new building in my hand, but instead we were going to look at a used building.
"We went and looked at it, and we walked out of this building and pretty much threw those plans in the closet because this is the place to be."
McAllister recognized the county commissioners, both past and present, for their diligence throughout the process.
"Our county commissioners diligently went through everything, watched us like hawks, and made sure we were doing the right things," McAllister said. "We had great teamwork with everybody on this."
While Elk County Commissioner Janis E. Kemmer was not on the ground floor of the project when negotiations first began, she was gracious to be included in the ceremony.
"I've seen the former facility and what we're standing in now is amazing, and state-of-the-art," Kemmer said. "It's an example for the rest of the nation. I know you've spent a long time-- Michael [McAllister] reminds us-- 20 years in a small area, but this is just beautiful, and a lot of credit goes to the EADS Group, the contractors, [McAllister] and his staff for the amazing amount of time that they've put into this. I think we're all going to be amazed by this."
Elk County Commissioner June H. Sorg said she was pleased and thankful to those who helped with the new facility.
"I look at all the dispatchers and the administration, and you guys have done a great job," Sorg said. "We've gone from the basement [of the Elk County Courthouse] to Boot Jack to here, and I think we found you a home.
"I'm pleased to have been able to be a part of this and I thank everyone who put their hard work into this because it really made a beautiful building."
Standing in a multi-purpose conference room in the new 911 Center, Elk County Commissioner Daniel R. Freeburg called it not only a "great day," but also a "day to be proud of what we have."
"With utmost pride, we recognize [McAllister], he is an exceptional director, one of the best in Pennsylvania and the country," Freeburg said. "Peter Folen of the EADS Group and Mike McGrady from MCM Consulting, top-notch firms and they understood that we needed utmost efficiency here, and we're very proud that we've achieved that."
Freeburg reminded attendees that new construction rather than improving an existing structure easily would've cost more than double what they originally paid.
"We have double the building here," Freeburg said. "We've really done a good thing and it took a bit of courage on our part, and I acknowledge (former) Commissioner Beimel because it's not easy to make hard decisions that involve spending public money, and what we were able to do was do this project without any type of tax increase, and it has a 50-year life.
"We're very proud of what we have and the best compliment, I think, was from a director at PEMA [Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency] a few weeks ago, he said this is probably among the top three centers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."
Pick up a copy of the Tuesday, March 20, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.