After $1.75M vote, details of Mifflin House purchase still being worked out

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Details surrounding York County's plan to chip in $1.75 million to purchase the historic Mifflin House, a stop on the Underground Railroad that's long been under threat of demolition, remain murky as the various parties move forward with the deal.

County officials say taxpayers will be reimbursed for the money once the property is redeveloped, but no one would share the non-binding letter of intent to finance the deal. The York Dispatch filed a Right-to-Know request for the document.

"We have a year to work this out, and those terms will be worked out," said Commissioner Doug Hoke, "but we always know that we are getting repaid any money that we would allocate to them plus interest over a negotiated period of time."

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Hoke, who voted with Commissioner Ron Smith to approve the plan, said the nonprofit Conservation Fund will purchase the property on behalf of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area and hold the title for one year at no interest. Susquehanna will then obtain the actual cash on hand to purchase the property.

President Commissioner Julie Wheeler voted against the plan last week and stands by her vote: "I don't believe county government should be in the banking business," she said in an interview this week.

Nonetheless, she said the letter of intent is only the first step in a process. If there's another vote, however, her stance will remain unchanged.

"The details have to be worked out."  Wheeler said. "Regardless of how I voted, it's been approved and now we've got to figure out how to get it executed."

Mark Platts, president of the Susquehanna organization, said via email that the organization is still working with the Conservation Fund, a national environmental non-profit, to secure the funding to purchase the property from Kinsley Construction and the Blessing family.

"This is a key piece of that plan, and we appreciate the support of the Commissioners to help save this place, create a new gateway visitor destination for York County, and bring economic investment to our local communities," Platts said.

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The Mifflin family hid people who had escaped slavery and ferried them across the Susquehanna River, where they continued their journey northward to Philadelphia.

Kinsley previously agreed to a 24-month moratorium on developing 62 of 86 acres of land, giving preservationists an opportunity to purchase the property for conservation purposes.

That deadline was up last month — hence the pressure for the county to sign on to the deal.

While Platts said he couldn't give specifics about how much funding was needed to purchase the property, he did provide the public Concept Plan. That plan estimated that it would require $5.5 million to acquire the property and $11.15 million to develop the property.

Two Civil War Trail signs, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, featuring the Mifflin House and Wrightsville Engagement, were installed at the end of the 600 block of Cherry Street in Wrightsville. Civil War Trails, a history tourism organization with 1,650 trail stops in six states, facilitated the installation. Bill Kalina photo

Susquehanna previously secured two grants worth $1.5 million each from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

According to Eric Menzer, Susquehanna's vice chairman, the group received another $850,000 from private foundations in order to preserve the site.

When combined with York County's contribution, the entire proposed purchase price would be covered. County officials repeatedly said that their portion of the money would be reimbursed, but it's not clear what mechanism is in place to ensure that happens.

For his part, Hoke is confident that the county will be repaid.

"There is no way I would ever do this if there was any financial burden to the taxpayers of the county," Hoke said. "I am very comfortable with this; I think it's a good project." 

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.