York City's $4M Dentsply redevelopment plan rejected by council

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

York City had what one official described as a "chicken or egg situation" when it came to purchasing the vacant former Dentsply Sirona campus at a proposed cost of $4 million.

The City Council, after a lengthy discussion Tuesday night, ultimately chose neither.

In May, the council signed off on a letter of intent (LOI) with representatives for the dental supply company, which shuttered the 17-acre campus and laid off 200 employees in 2020. The proposal was part of a plan to redevelop the site off College Avenue.

But several changes to that letter meant that it would need to go back to council members for approval. In a 3-2 vote, council members rejected that letter Tuesday, effectively blocking the sale.

However, that letter has not been made available to the public — leading to criticism from some city officials and residents. The York Dispatch has filed a public records request for the document but has not yet received it.

York City has been mulling the $4 million purchase of the former Dentsply Sirona campus.

According to Mayor Michael Helfrich and Blanda Nace, the city's chief opportunity development officer, the plan was for the city to purchase the Dentsply property and then — after gathering feedback from the public — figure out a more detailed proposal for what to do with it. One possibility they floated publicly: transforming the campus into affordable housing.

One sticking point, however, was a requirement for the city to sign the letter of intent — which would've required $40,000 to immediately be placed in escrow — before it would receive key information about environmental reports, utility costs and more.

"There was a chicken or egg situation where we didn't know what the carrying cost would be because we didn't sign the LOI to get that information," Nace said.

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In anticipation of those carrying costs, the city also put forth a budget amendment that would've set aside $5 million to pay for both the purchase of the Dentsply site and additional costs related to holding the property. That amendment was pulled from Tuesday night's agenda prior to the rejection of the letter of intent through a 4-1 vote, with Council President Sandie Walker voting against.

Several council members and city residents criticized the entire plan as being too vague.

"The lack of consistency that you guys are showing today displays in my opinion how the rest of this will go," said Council Vice President Edquina Washington, who voted against the letter. "One thing is on the agenda, you're saying a different amount today. I think it's an embarrassment that we don't have it together at this point."

Nace said the additional $1 million was a rough estimate of what it would cost the city to maintain the property after the $4 million purchase.

"It's a placeholder," he said, "and we don't know what that number will be because we haven't signed the LOI."

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich discusses the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act and how it will likely impact the community at York City Hall in York City, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Helfrich said that figure had been agreed upon between his administration and Walker. To accommodate the lack of knowledge of the specific costs, he asked the council to pass the line item to pay for engineering and legal costs.

"It's not a matter of us not being organized; it's a matter of me trying to accommodate a situation and adapt to a situation that has occurred," Helfrich said. "I am happy for council to provide the money just to review the documents we will be receiving if the LOI is signed."

Council members Betsy Buckingham and Felicia Dennis, who also voted against signing the letter, said they needed more information before they could sign off on the letter, additionally raising concerns about indefinitely removing the site from the city's tax rolls.

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"I've talked to a lot of residents of the city and I haven't had one constituent either privately or that spoke to us that were in favor of it," Buckingham said. "Overwhelmingly it had to do with taking off the tax rolls and implicating tax dollars in the future."

According to county tax records, Dentsply pays $16,693 in municipal taxes on the property each year. The total tax bill, including county and school taxes, is $54,318.

Representatives for Dentsply and the company's broker, Cushman & Wakefield, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Walker, who initially delayed a vote on the amended letter, said she voted in favor of it Tuesday because it would have given the city more information on the property. Council member Lou Rivera had no comment on his vote.

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In addition to the vote against the Dentsply letter of intent, the council also voted 4-1 to pull a motion to create a $5 million line item in the 2022 budget regarding Dentsply. That money would've come from the proceeds of the wastewater treatment system sale to Pennsylvania American Water.

After the meeting, Helfrich said he hoped the council would give the proposal another chance.

"All we're really looking to do is get the information to find out if this is a good deal for the residents and businesses and the taxpayers of the city of York," he said.

The council also voted unanimously to direct a potential ordinance change regarding the police department back to the committee meeting level for further consideration.

The council meeting in its entirety can be viewed at the White Rose Community TV YouTube channel at this link York City Council Meeting 10/4/2022 - YouTube. The next scheduled meeting of the York City Council is Oct. 18.

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