Situation at Progress Plaza 'Stabilized'
By Rick Hiduk
Progress Authority executive director Tony Ventello is as anxious as the rest of the tenants of One Progress Plaza in Towanda to get back into the building at the intersection of Elizabeth and Main Streets in Towanda that was extensively damaged by recent flooding. As of Sept. 26, Ventello, who has been working with Royal Plus Disaster Kleenup to eradicate all materials compromised by the flooding, as well as any traces of mold or other microbic threats, declared the building to be “stabilized.”
“We can’t fool around here. We have to meet all of the state laws for environmental controls,” Ventello explained. The “good news,” he noted, is that help arrived in time to empty the first floor of the building, which prevented the germination of any fungus that might have prolonged the cleanup efforts. Several tests of the air have confirmed that it too, while still carrying a slightly damp odor, is also free of dangerous microbes.
All that remains of the three entities that once shared the 16,000-square feet ground floor area, including the Social Security Administration, Endless Mountains Transportation Authority, and Lackawanna College, are steel studs, concrete floors that bare some traces of where desks and other equipment once sat, and restroom fixtures wrapped in plastic that have already been cleaned and sanitized by Royal Plus employees, who numbered between 50 and 60 at the peak of the cleanup. Large dehumidifiers continue to dry the open space while contractors begin to assess the condition of electrical panels and other infrastructure vital to the full-scale operations of the building.
The first floor will likely remain closed for months as the reconstruction of office suites, elevators, common areas, and restrooms gets underway. In the meantime, Ventello hopes to start bringing the tenants of the upper two floors back into the building in the coming weeks. The Progress Authority has submitted a request to code enforcement officials to gain temporary approval for occupancy.
“We need to get things up and running so we don’t lose services for our community,” Ventello asserted. “The challenge has been that we lost our elevators that help us meet handicap access requirements.” He is working with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare to secure approval of a temporary access area through a second floor entrance and vestibule on Main Street for clients of returning businesses and organizations who are handicapped. He hopes that such an arrangement will suffice for most of the tenants until elevator service can be restored. It could take another four weeks, Ventello noted, just to get the parts needed to start rebuilding the elevators.
Though the second and third floors of the building were not inundated, a lack of electricity allowed dampness to permeate the entire structure, a challenge that has been remedied by running the air conditioning units for those floors off large generators situated in the parking lot below. Except for large temporary lighting units placed strategically throughout the building, the majority of the offices remain dark and quiet.
Ventello recalled the hours that he stood along the wall on Main Street that overlooks One Progress Plaza with dozens of other spectators as the river swiftly filled the parking lot and began to enter the building. By 6 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 8, the water level had risen to about two feet and reached the primary outside transformer, which is connected via underground cable to a substation across the Merrill Parkway. The water shorted the connection between the two systems, and Ventello saw sparks fly at the substation as the building went dark. The water continued to climb to a height of about four-and-a-half feet, which, fortunately, did not break any windows. The pressure of the water inside the building, however, did force the entrance doors open just far enough to permit a number of fish to enter the lobby, which Ventello found in the mud when he was able to gain access to the building on Friday morning.
Five vehicles, including an EMTA bus, two vehicles belonging to the military recruitment offices inside, and two private vehicles were submerged in the parking lot. Ventello related that, as the electrical components in the vehicles shorted out, trunks popped open, lights went on and off, and windows went up and down. Ventello worked with Penelec to ensure that all of the main breakers to the building had been shut off so that he and Royal Plus workers, who were initially unable to get to Towanda due to the number of impassable roads, could safely enter all areas of the building. Dunn Tanker Service provided vacuum trucks and worked with Royal Plus to remove the remaining water and mud from the first floor.
While reopening One Progress Plaza is the Progress Authority’s primary objective, Ventello noted, “We’ve also had to continue to do our jobs. We had a lot of important things happening before the flood, and new business are calling for information who have no idea what has happened here.” The Progress Authority is an economic development organization that serves both Bradford and Susquehanna Counties.
Ventello gave high marks to Royal Plus, which has been managed onsite by company president Matt Odachowski. “This company understands the need and urgency of getting this job done,” said Ventello, who added that Odachowski has in turn told him that he has been impressed by the congeniality and cooperation of residents and business owners in the Towanda area.