Relic of Pa. mining to be preserved, but how is anyones guessadmin
One of the most visible reminders of Pennsylvania’s storied coal-mining past was saved from the wrecking ball recently when local officials seized the property through eminent domain.
Now comes the hard part: finding the millions of dollars it will take to turn the Huber Breaker _ a deteriorating steel-and-glass structure once used to break, wash and size coal _ into a museum or park that tells the story of Pennsylvania anthracite.
The Luzerne County commissioners voted last month to condemn the property after its owner said he might dismantle the 68-year-old breaker outside Wilkes-Barre and sell it for scrap. Condemnation is a legal process by which the government seizes private property for the public’s benefit, paying fair market value to the owner.
Commissioner Todd Vonderheid acknowledged Friday that condemnation was a bit of leap of faith. There are many ideas, but no firm plans, about what to do with the breaker, and no one knows how much it will ultimately cost.
But he said the Huber _ one of the last remaining anthracite breakers in the United States _ was too important to risk its demolition.
“It’s the last breaker in the coal fields. There is more than a sentimental or nostalgic reason to preserve it,” Vonderheid said. “It’s really important to tell the story of our grandparents and how they sacrificed and what they did to fuel the industrial revolution of the United States.”
The breaker’s former owner, Al Roman, bought the Huber in 1997 for $25,000. He pledged six years ago to donate it for historic preservation, but negotiations to swap the breaker for another piece of property went nowhere.
Time grew short when Roman, president of a heavy construction company, indicated in November that salvagers had offered him hundreds of thousands of dollars for the breaker’s high-grade steel. Roman said he longed to be rid of the liability.
That’s when the commissioners decided to step in, taking the breaker and 26 surrounding acres.
Under eminent domain, the county and Roman will negotiate price and terms. If they are unable to reach an agreement, a court-appointed board will determine the fair market value of the property. Either side can appeal the board’s decision to a county judge.
John Aciukewicz, the county’s lawyer, said negotiations with Roman were at a “sensitive stage.” He declined to comment further. Roman also declined comment Friday.
Vonderheid said he’s received more feedback from residents on the fate of the breaker than on any other issue during his three-plus years as county commissioner.
“I think everybody in northeastern Pennsylvania has a different end result in mind. Some people think we should restore it to the point of a working breaker. Some think it should be restored as a wonderful piece of public art that helps tell a story through narrative interpretation,” he said.
The county hopes the Huber can lure “heritage” tourists, a growing segment of the tourism industry. The breaker, a hulking, boxy structure visible from Interstate 81, is sandwiched between two successful coal-themed attractions: the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour to the north and Eckley Miners’ Village, a preserved coal company town, to the south.
Preservationists already have some money in the pot. The nonprofit Huber Breaker Preservation Society has received more than $200,000 in grant money to replace windows, refurbish signage and stabilize the structure. But it would take vast sums to turn the breaker into a full-fledged museum.
State Sen. Raphael Musto, a Luzerne County Democrat, said Friday through an aide that he would do whatever he could to secure additional state money for the Huber.
U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski said he would look into federal funding, but added that “in this period of tremendous federal budget deficits, there are very few dollars available for projects of this kind.”