PUNXSUTAWNEY — The Grace Place Apartments at the corner of Pine and North Gilpin streets officially opened for business Friday, as the ribbon was cut by a host of dignitaries.
"It's an honor to be standing in this place, thanks to a few people who had a vision," Rev. James E. Steingrass, president of the Jefferson Area Lutheran Social Ministry (JALSM) said prior to Friday's ceremony.
JALSM, a non-profit, church-related organization, formed in 2007 to address the housing shortage for moderate-income seniors in Punxsutawney and constructed the apartment complex in partnership with TREK Development of Pittsburgh.
"We've only been able to get here because of the support of this community and all of you to be able to come to this place," Steingrass said. "We are so thankful for all of you and your support for us."
Jeff Curtis, president of the Punxsutawney Area Chamber of Commerce, said JALSM needs to be praised for its project and the fact that it's located in downtown.
"JALSM combined the old with the new by renovating the old hospital building; if you haven't been over to see that, I encourage you to do so," Curtis said, adding that he can't wait to see the apartments.
Punxsutawney Mayor James Wehrle said it was a great day for Punxsutawney, and he wanted to congratulate everyone who helped to bring Grace Place to fruition.
"It's not only a great day for Punxsutawney but for the senior citizens who are going to live here; once again, congratulations," Wehrle said.
Roger Steele, outgoing council member speaking on behalf of borough council, said Rev. Tim Spence (interim director of JALSM) brought the concept of Grace Place to him 10 years ago.
"I thought about it and said 'good luck' and wrote it off, and then it came together, and every time I drive by, it looks like little English Tudor condominiums, which is so much a part of the downtown look that we need and the downtown facilities that we need," Steele said. "Those who put the plan together and He who pursued it and with guidance from above, He must have known you were a good friend.
"Thank you, it's here, and it's viable and will become a vital part of downtown Punxsutawney," Steele said.
Rep. Sam Smith, speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, said Spence first came to him with Grace Place plans because of Smith's involvement with the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency — the agency that Spence needed to work with to help put some of the pieces together.
"If I had not known a little bit about Tim, I might have been like Roger (Steele) and said 'good luck' and wrote it off," Smith said. "I did scratch my head and thought that he was biting off a pretty big chunk to try and pull this together."
Smith said that nothing like this happens because of one person; it requires a whole team of people working together.
"Everyone needs to know that Tim was (the) driving force to pull all of those pieces together, and I hope the community recognizes his commitment to our community and (his help) to put a facility like this to serve a segment of our community," Smith said, adding that it's a boost to the downtown area that was needed.
“It's needed, and it provides a service to our community," Smith said. "We should all be very proud and thankful to those who did the really hard work to make this happen."
Smith congratulated JALSM and welcomed members to the community.
Bishop Rev. Dr. Ralph E. Jones, Northwestern Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said last week, the Synod gathered seven bishops in the Lutheran Church from Pennsylvania in Harrisburg for a meeting of the Lutheran Advocacy Agency and heard from the executive director that housing is going to be the biggest issue for the next several years.
"In looking for help in beginning to lift up this effort, I was able to say in small Northwestern Pennsylvania, JALSM was going to open this facility with housing," Jones said, adding that JALSM could help the Synod with housing.
"If we can do it here, we can do it many other places,," Jones said. "We have a companion Synod in Tanzania, and we gave a small gift that created a very large campus to educate girls with a high school degree.
"The same thing happened here; we gave a very small gift to a dedicated group of people led by Pastor (Tim) Spence, and they have done remarkable things in building a coalition that allows this to happen," Jones said. "We are so grateful, not only for the Lutherans among us, but the community and all of the backers who've come forward to be a part of this effort."
Spence, interim executive director of JALSM, said the $7.25 million project was discussed with several people on the board and asked ‘what if’ and ‘what would it mean to the area and the church?’
"Well, ‘what if’ is here; not only have we captured the imagination of this community, but we have requests from five other communities to move into four other counties and build Grace Place housing," Spence said. "A concept of a welcoming grace for people who are in need of changing their lifestyle because of age or because they need to downsize for whatever reason."
Spence said he didn't do this by himself and that he had a strong team, including Bill Gatti from TREK Development and the strong team of Mistick Construction, especially Tom Woodward.
"He is the strongest foreman of a project that I've every worked with on a construction project," Spence said. "He not only brought it in under budget, but three months ahead of schedule."
The new apartment facility is for those over 62 whose income is under 60 percent of the Jefferson County median income.
Spence said the$7.25 million project was funded by donations, loans and tax credits through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency and William Cooper and S & T Bank.
The building was designed by Tom Harley, AIA, of Upstreet Architects of Indiana, and has design elements that blend with both the former hospital building and the Banker Tudor house located across the street, Spence said.
Grace Place features 24 one- and two-bedroom units, four of the units are fully handicapped accessible.
Following the ceremony an open house was held with the model apartments furnished by Miller Brothers Furniture in Punxsutawney.
For more information contact the JALSM office at 814-938-3200 or the Grace Place Apartment office at 814-938-3008.