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Elks Theatre saga like a bad movie with no end in sight

The Elks Theatre saga continues, with the plot taking twists and turns that frankly we have trouble following.


What would the title of the movie based on this story be? Maybe “Missed Opportunities.” Or “Planless in Middletown.” Or “Double Trouble.”


We hope that a rewrite still can be done to improve the ending, but we fear it’s too late.
And, if you allow us one more movie pun: Where is the theater’s knight in shining armor? In other words, if there is such a fervor for it to reopen, who is the person or group driving it?

No one on council has made impassioned pleas, minus some efforts by Diana McGlone. The Friends of the Elks group remains just that — friends. It seems unwilling to take on a full relationship. They won’t buy the theater for even $1.


In July, dozens of residents came to the MCSO to make it crystal clear to council that they want the theater to reopen. Speaker after speaker pledged to do whatever it took to make it happen. And what happened? Nothing. No one raised any money. No one went door to door.


The latest blow to the theater’s hopes came when the Middletown Borough Council recently rejected a $500,000 state grant not once, but twice.


Yes, there were strings attached to the grant, including a necessary local match. But that was not enough reason to turn down the money. Had council accepted the grant, the borough would have had six months to figure out how to come up with the $500,000 in cash that would have been needed, as estimates now show that it will cost at least $1 million to restore and reopen the theater.


So all the town had to do was come up with $500,000. Not $500,000 in tax dollars, but $500,000.


However, those on the council who felt as though the theater renovation is a “want” and not a “need” prevailed.


Raising $500,000 sounds like a daunting task, and it is. But look at some of the other things that this town has been known to accomplish, when put to the test.


Remember the big fire at Pineford and how the entire town responded and mobilized in the space of just a few hours?


Or how about the small army of volunteers who make National Night Out happen in August? You know, that National Night Out for which the borough just got a national award?


Mayor James H. Curry III and many council members don’t want any tax dollars going for the renovations. That’s a legitimate position. The borough is looking at a lot of big ticket capital improvement needs and projects coming down the pike — such as a fire engine that may itself cost up to $2 million.


A theater vs. a firetruck that might be needed to put out the fire at your house or your business? It is kind of a no-brainer. However, in rejecting the grant, council is basically saying this town isn’t up to the task. That’s unfortunate.


What’s also disconcerting is this same council in August unanimously approved using money received from selling two downtown properties for renovating the Elks Theatre. Money that the borough gets over the next two years from leasing a cell tower to AT&T — estimated at the time at $50,000, although it could be less — is also going toward theater renovations. Sale of the McNair house and the former Klahr site, along with the cell tower money, could total several hundred thousand dollars, although the properties appear far from being sold.


Council President Ben Kapenstein and council members Damon Suglia, Diana McGlone, Robert Reid and Dawn Knull voted for settings aside the funds in August. But Suglia, Reid and Knull voted against accepting the grant, with Knull one of the most outspoken opponents.


What changed between August and November?


We are still disappointed in another missed opportunity for the theater.


Last year, Phantom Theatre Company wanted to lease the space into a multi-purpose performing arts center for live performances while continuing to show movies as well. It commissioned professional sketches for the plan, obtained construction estimates, made presentations to the borough council, and held a reception at the Elks. It decided not to continue with the plans after finding out Tattered Flag Brewery and Still Works would take the second floor of the front of the building.


Still, the group came back again earlier this year when no other group had submitted a viable plan for the theater. In March, it submitted another letter of intent and a business plan for the theater. But in a May later, the group’s board president, Wendi Dobson, said: “Despite our true intentions and best efforts, the misinformation circulated throughout social media about PTC by certain members of the community with their own self-interests, as well as the ongoing political turmoil and discord among the borough council and ICDA, have become deterrents to moving forward with the Elks Building business plan.”


Ouch.


We aren’t looking to bash everyone involved, but the Friends of the Elks group needs to do more. They don’t want to own the theater, even if it costs them just $1.


They could probably have the theater space tomorrow. In doing so, the Friends group could commit itself to leading the effort to make the theater happen, once and for all. It all comes down to taking a leap, making a monumental commitment.


To its credit, the Friends group since August 2015 has had a proposal before the borough for the Friends group to lease the theater from the borough and operate it.


But the proposal is contingent upon the borough coming up with about $500,000 — there’s that $500,000 again — to restore and reopen the theater as a multi-use performing arts center.


The borough has not taken any action on the proposal — again, because council doesn’t want to spend tax dollars on the theater, and also because the mayor and several others on council have yet to be convinced that the Friends group can raise the amount of money that would be needed to complete the project.


In another example of this self-inflicted paralysis, the Friends group has repeatedly said it has potential donors lined up — including the big-time corporate type — but that nobody is going to give any money until the borough makes some kind of commitment to the Friends. And so the circle of inaction remains unbroken.


There is simply no one taking leadership on this issue. There is no plan for what should be done. There is no clear route for reopening the theater, or selling the theater, or even what should be done with it if it is never a theater again.


There don’t seem to be too many options left.


The borough can continue to own the theater and do nothing with it, garner no tax dollars, and basically let it sit and deteriorate. It can try to sell it for whatever it can get, with no guarantee that the property will remain a theater or even remain standing. Or it can try to sell it with some strings attached that it will remain a theater.


Council member Ian Reddinger publicly favored the borough giving the Elks Theater space to the Friends of the Elks group for $1. That still remains the best option in our opinion, except as we said, the group doesn’t want it for that.


Middletown, council has tossed the ball in your court. If the 105-year-old Elks Theater is truly the gem that everyone says it is, it’s up to the people of this town to make it happen.
If you’re looking to council or the borough or the Friends of the Elks to make it happen, you’re wasting your time.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 December 2016 15:50

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Fighting the crime battle right here on Middletown streets

It wasn’t exactly a reign of terror holding a grip over Middletown. Still, it was good to see that police recently arrested a suspect in the rash of copper thefts from vacant homes in the area.

It was not shocking to hear that the suspect was using the money to buy drugs, according to Middletown Police Chief John Bey.

What is a bit surprising was how relatively little the thefts brought to the suspect, and how cheap it is to buy heroin.

Bey said the suspect, James J. Goodling, 43, of Caravan Court, would target a home about once a week. The burglaries would cause thousands of dollars of damage, but he would get only about $80 by pawning the copper that he stole from each residence, Bey said. That’s hardly a king’s ransom, and seems like little “reward” for such a risk.

But consider that in this area today a heroin habit can be supported by just $10 to $20 a day, according to Richard Brandt, who in July retired as police chief of Lower Swatara Township, and it makes more sense.

Drugs are cheap.

Heroin is deadly.

It’s not a good combination.

According to a very well-done study by CNN published in October, heroin-related deaths increased 439 percent from 1999 to 2014. Drugs are the leading cause of accidental death in this country, as fatal overdoses surpassed shooting deaths and fatal traffic accidents years ago, the network reported.

The toll the drug fight takes on law enforcement, on health care, on families — it’s severe.

There are no easy answers. Some want to treat addicts like patients, not lawbreakers. 

Some tout the use of naloxone (also known commonly as Narcan, a brand name) for first responders, friends and families because it’s an opioid overdose reversal medicine. Lower Swatara police recently had its first instance of saving a person by using a naloxone kit. But that only reverses the drug effects. It doesn’t address its widespread use.

While what we can do to fight drugs might appear murky, we can take steps to fight the crime that is related to it.

But it will require effort, said David Botero, community relations coordinator for the Harrisburg Bureau of Police. He spoke to Middletown residents Nov. 16 for the first of three public meetings being held in Middletown on how residents can develop neighborhood watch groups.

We were heartened that Botero said that it only takes one or a few dedicated people to really get a neighborhood watch group going. Then it takes persistence — like knocking on doors — and regular meetings to help it grow.

Many of the best traits of a neighborhood watch group are similar to simply being a good neighbor. In fact, Botero — who Bey called the “guru” of neighborhood crime watch programs — said he thinks of himself as a “professional neighbor.” 

Members of a neighborhood watch group “can tell you that this person in this house is on vacation, this person should be at work, whose car is that, this person’s mail is not being picked up. There’s an abandoned home with squatters over there. This street light is flickering. We haven’t seen this guy for awhile — can you go in and see if he’s dead?”

Only about 20 borough residents came to the Nov. 16 meeting at Liberty Fire Hall on Adelia Street. We can do better than that, Middletown.

Botero will be back at the next community meeting on crime in Middletown that is being held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 15, at the Rescue Fire Hall on South Union Street.

We won’t solve the heroin issue, but we sure can put a dent in the crime problem right here in our corner of the world.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 November 2016 12:57

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Amtrak station site: What it will look like is still not finalized

Our first visit to the site of the new Amtrak station in Middletown last week was eye-opening.

It wasn’t what we saw at the site, however, that surprised us. There isn’t much to get excited about unless you love parking lots. Sure, it was interesting to see from the other side of the fence the work that we could only previously view from the road. 

It’s a very large area. And we stood in the middle of what will be the West Emaus Street extension, so that we could get a sense of how many people will enter Middletown once the road is completed.

However, what was eye-opening was that large chunks of the final plans for the site were up to the private company or developer selected to do the work to figure out.

As Dan Miller reports on today’s front page of the Press And Journal, there could be a number of retail spots there, such as a coffee shop or a hotel. Or maybe there won’t be any.

We were told previously that the West Emaus Street extension likely wouldn’t open until the Amtrak station was done. That is up for discussion, however. Maybe it will be if that works for the developer. 

“If a commercial developer comes in and wants to propose a plan that requires space for them to do work, we didn’t want to open a road to traffic and then have potential conflicts with traffic or pedestrians in an active contraction zone,” PennDOT Deputy Secretary for Multimodal Transportation Toby Fauver said. “If opening the road to traffic isn’t going to create a conflict then it is possible we could open the road early.”

Even the exact site of the pedestrian walkway that will help Penn State University Harrisburg students cross West Main Street could move a bit, although there isn’t much room for it to move. 

The PennDOT work being done at the site is what is known as a P3 project, or public-private partnership. According to PennDOT’s website, it is a “contractual agreement between a public entity and private entity that:

• Transfers the responsibility of a facility’s engineering, construction, operation and/or maintenance to the private sector for a defined period of time.

• Allows the private sector to perform by contract a service previously provided by the public sector.

• Ensures the private firm receives payments either from existing revenue sources or through the collection of new tolls or user fees.

In other words, it brings development into what would previously have been just a government contract job.

We have no problem with this. In many ways, it makes sense. But it was just the depth at which the private firm could sway the final product that took us by surprise.

There are certain things that PennDOT requires from the contractor. There must be 400 new parking spaces to meet needs of the new train station, for example. But if the contractor wants to build a hotel and use up some land that would have been set aside for parking, those 400 spaces could be in a parking garage.

And as we’ve said before, there’s no need to get anxious because it’s still going to be awhile before it’s done.

At this point, work on the train station itself is to start late in 2018. The entire train station project is to be finished and opened to the public sometime in 2020 or 2021. Work to prepare the site for construction of the station — and whatever ultimately goes with it — is to be finished by May 2017. Norfolk-Southern railroad is expected to start an estimated $6.5 million in track work before the end of 2016. An estimated $4.3 million in track work that has to be done by Amtrak is expected to begin late next year.

So we will continue to stare at what mostly will be an blank canvas for a bit longer. We hope the artist makes into something of which Middletown can be proud.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 22 November 2016 15:57

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Is $500,000 grant enough to spur progress on Elks?

If the consensus is to renovate the Elks Theatre, then Gov. Tom Wolf put a nice early gift under Middletown’s Christmas tree. It would be foolish not to take advantage of it.

The $500,000 state grant is not free. The borough to get the grant must come up with $500,000 in local “matching” dollars, based upon requirements of the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, the state program which is the source of the grant funds. The Elks project must cost at least $1 million to qualify for the RACP grant, according to a list of frequently asked questions about the program posted by the state online. 

Where the local $500,000 will come from is not clear. All proceeds from sale of the McNair House property on the northeast corner of North Union and East Emaus streets and from sale of the vacant former Klahr Building site in the first block of South Union Street are to go toward the theater under action taken by the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority in August. The authority in August also decided that an estimated $50,000 that the borough expects to receive over the next two years from leasing a cell tower to AT&T is to go toward the Elks Theatre renovations.

But the timing is not completely clear. Can the property be sold quickly enough that the funds could be used for the $500,000 grant? The authority has received bids from properties on either side of the Klahr tract, but sale of the Klahr parcel is “kind of in limbo,” according to Councilor Ian Reddinger, who chairs the authority.

Also, how much will the project cost? It’s an ongoing question. The state grant requires the project to cost at least $1 million. Estimates for how much it would cost to renovate and reopen the Elks Theatre run from about $500,000 to close to $1.3 million. 

The borough soon hopes to get a firmer estimate on the theater from A.P. Williams, the company that is working for Tattered Flag to convert its portion of the Elks Building into a combined craft brewery/distillery brew pub. A report with some firm numbers from A.P. Williams should be coming out “fairly soon,” said Gordon Einhorn, a member of the board of directors of the Friends of the Elks group. 

Which, in some ways, takes us right back to where we were: The Friends group is willing to help raise any money that might be needed in order for the borough to meet the $500,000 matching requirement, Einhorn said. But that’s not possible until the borough makes some kind of commitment to the Friends group regarding the proposal that Friends has made to operate the theater Einhorn noted. A proposal has been before council for more than a year without action.

The clock is ticking. The borough has 30 days from when it received the authorization letter to decide whether it will accept the RACP grant, and it was on the agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting. The borough then has six months to submit its application to the state, which among other things would have to document that the borough will have the $500,000 in matching funds.

While we are not completely sold on whether the renovation will be a success, the momentum among residents and borough officials is clearly toward getting it done. We hope this $500,000 grant will be the spur that is needed.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 15 November 2016 14:40

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‘We are undefeated!’: Blue Raiders roll to 10-0

“We are undefeated! We are undefeated!”

That’s a chant that few high school teams can claim after 10 games.

But it’s a phrase that Middletown Blue Raiders fans joyously yelled after the football team’s 42-7 defeat of visiting Steelton-Highspire on Friday night.

And now, it’s on to the playoffs, vs. Littlestown, for Mid-Penn Conference Capital Division champions.

We urged you several weeks ago to jump on the bandwagon, that the team is something special. If you didn’t listen then, it’s not too late to get to the game Friday.

The numbers are staggering. They have scored 410 points this season (averaging 41 a game) while giving up only 91 (9.1 a game). Only one game was closer than 20 points. That was their Week 6 win vs. Palmyra, a game in which they did not play their best but that seemed to inspire the team for the remainder of the season.

While it was a team effort, we do want to give kudos to senior running back Jaelen Thompson, who set a new career rushing record this season. He surpassed Rodney Ramsey’s 3,409 yards from 2006 to 2008 and now stands at 3,459.

This team is already special, but it should have some lofty goals ahead of it. 

Come out Friday and show your Raider spirit.

Beat Littlestown!

Last Updated on Tuesday, 08 November 2016 16:47

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