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The Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex could reopen as soon as this fall after being closed to the public throughout the pandemic.

The state-owned ag expo center has temporarily housed Pennsylvania’s stockpile of personal protective equipment for the past year, but officials say it’s time to move the masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to a permanent warehouse.

“We are as anxious as anyone to move out of the facility as soon as we can,” Curt Topper, Pennsylvania’s general services secretary, said in a March 31 hearing of the House State Government Committee.

In its emergency response plans, Pennsylvania has long designated the Farm Show Complex as its statewide distribution hub during extreme situations.

Following that plan, the state consolidated its existing supplies of PPE at the Farm Show Complex when the pandemic began.

That initial gear, acquired in case of an Ebola outbreak, had been stored at the state’s three general-purpose warehouses along with unrelated supplies for other agencies, Topper said.

The state also began to acquire new PPE designed for COVID-19 in March 2020, said Ken Hess, deputy secretary for procurement at the Department of General Services.

For a short-term disaster like a storm, the Farm Show Complex makes a convenient staging area. It’s roomy at 1 million square feet, close to major highways, and somewhat centrally located in the state.

But the complex was designed to stable steers and horses, not to be a modern warehouse. During the pandemic, some equipment has been stored on dirt floors. The building is in a floodplain and has taken on water in the past.

So the Department of General Services is looking to move the stockpile, both to free up the Farm Show Complex for events and to establish a long-term home that appears to be needed for the state’s COVID-19 protective equipment.

“Frankly, we don’t know when the next pandemic is going to hit, and our experience over the last year has shown that we can’t necessarily rely on the federal government to deliver everything that we need when we need it,” Topper said.

The agency is pulling together existing funds to assist with the move, though it expects to need money from the new state budget, due by June 30, to finish the process.

Topper hopes to start moving PPE to the new location this summer and be out of the Farm Show Complex by fall. He said it’s too soon to know if the building will be able to host the All-American Dairy Show and Keystone International Livestock Exposition.

Those major livestock shows traditionally happen in September and October, though they were canceled last year.

This year’s Pennsylvania Farm Show, the complex’s marquee event, was held virtually in January.

In a February budget hearing, Ag Secretary Russell Redding said he was anxious to bring events back to the complex, though in the meantime, the PPE storage arrangement has provided revenue to retain Farm Show staff and pay the complex’s utility bills.

And even when the stockpile is out of the way, events won’t automatically return in pre-pandemic fashion.

The Ag Department will evaluate each event request on a number of factors, with particular concern for public health and safety, spokeswoman Emily Demsey said.

The state’s rules for masking, social distancing and capacity limits — currently 25% for indoor gatherings — would be in force.

Politics of the Stockpile

During the hearing, Republicans grilled the administration officials on why they put the state’s entire stockpile at the Farm show Complex.

“Does it make sense to have all PPE in one location where it could be vulnerable to fire, flooding, vandalism, sabotage? Would it not make sense to have regional storage areas?” said Rep. Craig Staats of Bucks County.

Hess said that a single site offers more streamlined distribution than scattered depots would.

“We get economies of scale. We get the security that we need. We can focus material handling equipment. We practiced out of that facility,” he said.

In addition, the entire pandemic response does not depend on the state’s lone warehouse. Health care providers have their own PPE supply chains, and the stockpile is a supplier of last resort, Topper said.

As for the flood risk, the state has been monitoring river levels and would be able to move the stockpile if necessary to parts of the complex that would not get inundated, said Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

The Farm Show stockpile became a conservative talking point last month after a Williamsport talk radio station aired a segment that suggested the stockpile was sitting idle.

In fact, Pennsylvania has distributed over 6 million N-95 masks, 18 million gloves, 1 million medical gowns and 1 million bottles of hand sanitizer during the pandemic, Topper said.

The state also beefed up security at the Farm Show Complex as news spread about its pandemic repurposing. A Capitol Police detail is there nearly all the time, Topper said.

The complex has had at least one unexpected visitor — Republican Sen. Doug Mastriano, who said he was denied entry after showing up without an appointment.

In a video, Mastriano said he wanted to exercise his oversight authority as a lawmaker to see how taxpayer dollars were being used. He planned to submit a formal request for access.

Demsey said no lawmakers have been granted tours of the stockpile. She did not have access to a photo of the setup inside the complex.

During the Farm Show hearing, several lawmakers asked if Fort Indiantown Gap would have been a better place for the emergency stockpile.

The National Guard installation in Lebanon County is housing some pandemic-related cooling trailers, but the base actually doesn’t have a lot of open warehouse space, said Jeffrey Thomas, executive deputy director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Additionally, the state’s PPE stores are not packed in the manner required for air transport, which limits the possibilities for rapid distribution from the fort’s airfield, Thomas said.

While the Farm Show Complex has gotten the job done during the pandemic, Topper said it would be reasonable to re-evaluate the building’s role in planning for future disasters.

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