Columbia No. 1 firestation

A developer is proposing to convert Columbia No. 1 firehouse, shown in this 2014 photo, into a call center for the state Department of Human Services.

A year after tabling a plan for a call center here, the state Department of Human Services now says it wants to put a scaled-down version of the call center somewhere in Lancaster County.

And even though the proposed call center has been shrunk by more than half, Columbia Borough is in hot pursuit of the venture, which would create 129 jobs.

Borough council voted this week to spend $835,000 to support the effort of developer Bill Roberts to put the call center in a fire station at 137 S. Front St.

“Every now and then, when a municipality embarks on an economic development project, they need to be willing to put some skin in the game,” said Mayor Leo Lutz.

Lutz wrote to Gov. Tom Wolf this week about the call center, asking him to support Columbia’s effort to secure “the largest economic development project in our borough” in 50 years.

In its call centers, employees consist of caseworkers, supervisors, clerical staff and management, said Alison Gantz, Department of Human Services spokeswoman.

Caseworkers field calls from applicants seeking various types of public assistance and from recipients of that assistance.

Among the assistance programs handled by the department are Medicaid, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps), CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

Common topics of calls are questions about benefit levels and eligibility rules, requests for updates on pending applications and changes in recipient cases, said Gantz.

The state Department of General Services, which handles real estate matters for state government, unveiled its “solicitation for proposals” for the new call center on May 7.

Bids are due by 3 p.m. June 12.

The 113-page solicitation document shows the department wants to lease 13,600 square feet somewhere in Lancaster County for 10 years, with a pair of five-year renewal options.

The earlier plan called for 32,900 square feet somewhere in a horizontal swath of central Lancaster County stretching from Columbia through nearly all of East Lampeter Township.

This original plan, which drew eight bidders, would have created 300 jobs. But the state tabled the proposal in April 2014 to take a fresh look at its space needs.

Roberts, of IBS Development, was among those eight bidders. He proposed expanding the fire station to provide the required space in a venture costing more than $7 million.

The revised call center’s smaller size would not require an expansion of the 18,000-square-foot station, he explained.

“We think that it’s a really good fit for what they want,” said Roberts. “Columbia is excited about it and so am I. We’re going to try with all our might to bring it here.”

Roberts, a Perry County resident who has done many developments in Lancaster County, including the Turkey Hill Experience in Columbia, said it’s too early in the design process to provide a project cost.

But some key financial pieces have been put in place.

Roberts has a sales agreement to buy the fire station of the Columbia No. 1 fire company for $200,000.

Columbia No. 1 only owns the Front Street station building; it leases the land under it from the borough.

But Columbia No. 1 is expected to leave soon. It’s merging with Susquehanna Fire & Rescue, at 10th and Manor streets, and intends to move to Susquehanna Fire’s station.

Helping hand

Borough council decided to facilitate the Roberts bid by taking two actions, said Lutz.

By a 6-0 vote at a special meeting Monday, borough council agreed to give $650,000 to the fire company to supplement the amount Roberts is paying to buy the building.

This contribution from the borough would reduce Roberts’ cost to buy the building.

That, in turn, would enable him to decrease the rent he’d charge the state and enhance his chance of winning the call-center project.

In addition, borough council would give $185,000 to Columbia No. 1’s mortgage lender, the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This contribution would erase  the fire company’s debt, according to Lutz. That way, the fire company could give a clear title on the building to Roberts.

Borough council also voted 6-0 to sell the land under the fire station to the Columbia Economic Development Corp. for $1, which in turn would sell it to Roberts to $1.

All these financial moves by the borough are contingent on Roberts being the successful bidder.

“Columbia Borough is so committed to the project that we’re willing to put money into it to help make it a reality,” said Lutz.

Lutz said the money would come out of the borough’s general fund. The withdrawals would not affect tax rates, he said.

“The borough has been building its reserve to do economic development projects if we saw one that was worth doing,” said Lutz.