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Is Middletown a ‘campus town’? What would it take to get it there?

Does Penn State Harrisburg’s continued growth mean that Middletown is becoming a college town?

Dr. Donald R. Holtzman, senior director of student services and special projects for Penn State Harrisburg, says yes.

Ben Kapenstein, the borough council president, says he sure hopes so.

But for many students, it still has a ways to go.

There are challenges. Route 230 is a physical separation of the two. Some Middletown residents are still cool to the idea of having students be an active part of the borough. Never mind that it’s called Penn State Harrisburg, not Penn State Middletown. And the entire campus is almost entirely in Lower Swatara Township to boot.

But the challenges go far beyond that. The consensus is clear: To be a college town, Middletown must provide options that draw students. While there are some exceptions, that is not the case at the moment.

But Holtzman is seeing changes. An area becomes a college town, he said, when its businesses aim to attract college students. That is taking place at the Westporte Centre along Route 230, which includes a Hardee’s as well as a Family Dollar and the Hop Yard, a restaurant/bar which recently opened.

Kapenstein agreed that Jim Nardo, the developer of Westporte, is catering toward the students.

“That’s why he’s building that. He gets it. They’re building because they see it coming,” Kapenstein said.

Holtzman said those who rent apartments in Middletown are starting to target students. There will be more than ever of those at the campus this fall, likely more than 5,000.

“That’s a pretty good-sized market,” Holtzman said.

Diana McGlone has multiple perspectives on the “college town” question. She is a borough council member as well as someone who owns multiple rentals that cater to Penn State Harrisburg students. She also is a 1997 graduate of the college.

She said Middletown needs to put certain things in place so to transition into a college town.

“We are a town with a college. We are not necessarily a college town,” she said.

In visiting other places, she said, “when there is a strong college presence, you can tell the difference.”

“The overall look and feel of the town, the cafes, the shops, the nightlife … we don’t have any of that yet,” she said.

Study says take advantage of PSU Harrisburg

A May 2014 economic development strategic plan completed by Commonwealth Economics LLC for the borough is very clear when it comes to the potential of the campus:

“Penn State Harrisburg arguably represents the single greatest opportunity for rejuvenation in the borough,” it states in the first point of the executive summary.

“While the study team is aware of the historic tensions that typify town-gown relationships, the fact of the matter is that Middletown can no longer afford to effectively ignore the presence of this rapidly expanding campus, which among other things includes growing out-of-state populations.”

The study calls for coffee/book shops offering free Wi-Fi and specialty apparel stores, which it says Middletown is lacking. “The clustering of Penn State students, staff and faculty would also help to support existing enterprises, including eateries and the Elks Theatre. If the notion is that a rising tide lifts all boats, Penn State Harrisburg should be considering the most likely source of that rising tide.”

In the study, students and faculty mentioned a number of wants regarding Middletown, including coffee shops with Wi-Fi facilities, open spaces (parks), organic food items, and ethnic restaurants.

“Downtown in its present state does not offer much to students, and that they are more likely to visit Harrisburg, Swatara and Park City Mall in Elizabethtown locally and Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore during weekends,” the study stated A 2008 study found that the campus had a $135 million economic impact on the state as a whole; the report by Commonwealth Economics LLC estimated that number to be more than $160 million in 2014.

Selling Middletown

The type of campus that Penn State Harrisburg is also has changed student life. It is no longer a commuter school. Students live on and around campus, a change even from 2010, when Kapenstein graduated from Penn State Harrisburg, Class of 2010. “People weren’t walking around campus between classes,” he said. But one thing is the same: “We didn’t really hang out in Middletown.”

Getting students to learn about Middletown starts before students even make a decision on where they will attend college, Holtzman said. During open houses they are put on shuttles and shown around town.

“Part of what we sell is Middletown, because that’s where they’ll be,” he said.

Holtzman said Penn State Harrisburg also wants the flow to go the opposite direction — they want to bring Middletown residents onto campus, and the new Student Enrichment Center that opens this year includes a theater that will be home to events and lectures that are open to the public.

Holtzman said students regularly visit Union Street to go to Karns or to get pizza, and even to Alfred’s Victorian Restaurant for special occasions.

“We’ve become more a part of the town, and the town becomes more of an extension of the campus for them,” he said. That will only grow, Holtzman said, when a new Amtrak station is completed, making Emaus Street easy to get to from campus because it will be extended. Plans call for a walking bridge that will allow students to get over Route 230 to the station, which will be along West Main Street across from campus. Emaus Street will be extended to the station out of downtown as well. “The bridge is going to be huge in my opinion. It’s going to funnel right into downtown,” Kapenstein said. “We can’t waste that opportunity.”

“It’s basically perfect. They’re shooting them right into our downtown. We have to make sure we’re set up to capitalize,” he added.

Noah Match, an assistant manager at Karns on South Union Street, said he sees a “pretty fair amount” of students shopping in his store when classes are in session, but they don’t make a concerted effort to draw them in.

He said a couple of PSU Harrisburg students even work in the store.

Better shopping

An extended Emaus Street could draw students — of legal drinking age, that is — to Middletown’s newest draw, the Tattered Flag Brewery and Still Works.

Kapenstein says he sees this happening. But where will students go other than there?

Kapenstein — who is Penn State Harrisburg grad himself, Class of 2010 — said it’s his job to help make Middletown a college town, and that goal needs to be a focus for the borough.

He wants to see a vibrant student population coming downtown, but that’s going to take a bigger shopping district. “A coffeeshop/bookstore with Wi-Fi would be a great place for kids to come down and do school work in a cool atmosphere,” he said.

The student population has a lot of money to spend, Kapenstein said.”Give them options to do so.

The problem is that there aren’t many places for a business to go at the moment. The corner store at Emaus and Union will be the new home to a vape shop. The former Bunky’s eatery along South Union Street. is sitting vacant. Kapenstein called it an “eyesore.”

“That’s a place we can put a couple of businesses or one big business,” he said, but the owner seems to want to “let it sit there.”

The McNair House at the corner of Union and Emaus sts. has room for retail space on the first floor, but the borough is likely to sell that property in the near future.

About the students …

Despite the perception that some residents have of the college students being more trouble than they’re worth, Kapenstein said there are residents who are accepting. He said he hasn’t heard many complaints from residents about student problems. “For the most part, residents want this to become a college town,” he said.

“It’s college. There’s going to be parties. There’s going to be that atmosphere. That’s part of growing up,” he said. “But they’re also learning to become professionals. They’re going to be our next generation of leaders.”

McGlone said she has seen more students looking for quality off-campus housing. She has many tenants who are not the typical post-high school students and who do not necessarily want to live in dormitory-style housing. That includes some military veterans and international students.

She said she asks international students what they like and don’t like about Middletown.

“It’s really good hearing different perspectives of people who have never been here before,” she said.

They would like to see more ethnic restaurants. Some also want access to bicycles. Middletown does not have a bicycle shop. Groceries, but nothing else?

Kathryn Urick, a junior Penn State Harrisburg student from Belgium, is one of those students who wants better shopping options. Other than buying groceries in the borough and the occasional meal, she said there’s not much to do.

“I don’t think there’s much in Middletown to be honest,” she said. “I think it’s kind of quiet.”

She said she would like to be able to buy clothes, get her hair cut and generally have better shopping options.

Vladhimir Theophile, a sophomore from New Jersey, lives in Middletown and walks to campus but said there “isn’t noticeably that much to do” in the borough.

“We’re looking for a mall, shopping centers, parks,” he said of he and his fellow college students.

He, too, buys groceries and said Middletown has some decent restaurants, “but as far as hanging out, there’s not much you can do.”

A bright future? McGlone and Kapenstein agreed that the borough and the university need to collaborate more.

McGlone wants to take advantage of the Lion Ambassadors student leadership group that does several community service projects throughout the year, and she would like to see the return of a student liaison member of council.

Despite the challenges, Kapenstein said he’s excited for the future of Middletown and Penn State Harrisburg.

“In 10 years, this will be a completely integrated college town. That’s my goal at least,” he said.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 August 2016 15:05

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Timeline in place for Amtrak station

StationThroughPedestrianBridgeWEBThis artist’s conception shows a walking bridge over West Main Street from Penn State Harrisburg to a new Amtrak station.

 

The all-important work of relocating railroad track for the new Amtrak station in Middletown is expected to start in the last three months of 2016, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick told the Press And Journal.

PennDOT, which is in charge of the train station project, has said that work on the station itself cannot begin until after crews with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern railroad complete the necessary track relocation near West Main Street.

PennDOT anticipates Amtrak workers to be on site to do their track relocation work sometime in the fourth quarter of 2016, Kirkpatrick said. 

Norfolk Southern is scheduled to do its track relocation work in the third quarter of 2017. 

PennDOT hopes to start work on the train station platform and on the station itself in the third quarter of 2018, Kirkpatrick said.

The project also includes extending West Emaus Street to West Main Street for better access to downtown Middletown.

Two other components of the train station project — a pedestrian bridge over West Main Street to Penn State Harrisburg, and a possible parking garage — are to be built by a private company under PennDOT’s public private partnership (P3) program.

However, PennDOT has not yet awarded a contract for the P3 part of the project. Kirkpatrick could not say when it will be awarded.

PennDOT in early summer awarded a $2.6 million contract to Horst Excavating to prepare for construction the train station site just west of Westporte Centre shopping center. That work is ongoing, Kirkpatrick said. 

The station is currently on Mill Street.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 August 2016 14:54

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Boy Scouts take part in coral reef sailing adventure

Seabase fixedSubmitted Photo -- Londonderry Township’s Boy Scouts Troop 97 took part in the National Sea Base Coral Reef High Adventure Sailing program based out of Islamorada, which is located in Key West, Florida. Seated: Scout Master Kevin Little, First Class Scout Ian Mills, Eagle Scout Garrett Little, Star Scout Jason O’Donnell. Standing: First Mate Victor, Scout Leader Don Stiffler, Life Scout Colby Stiffler, Life Scout Jake O’Donnell and Life Scout Justin Mills.

Tropical paradise, sailing, swimming around sunken Spanish artifacts, large game fishing and snorkeling with sea turtles. Londonderry Township’s Boy Scout Troop 97 recently traveled to Islamorada in Key West, Florida, for a sailing adventure.

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 August 2016 14:05

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Meeting on regionalization of police will be held Friday: Middletown, Lower Swatara, Dauphin County to take part

Officials from Lower Swatara, Middletown and Dauphin County will meet Friday, Aug. 12, to discuss a possible merger of the police from the two municipalities.

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 August 2016 13:20

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At-large elections common throughout county

If Middletown votes to change to an at-large council, it will bring it in line with almost all the other boroughs and townships in Dauphin County.

Jerry Feaser Jr., director of Dauphin County Elections and Voter Registration, told the Press And Journal that only five of the 16 boroughs use wards. Lykens has two wards, Penbrook has four wards, and Royalton and Williamstown have two wards, in addition to Middletown, which has three.

Berrysburg, Dauphin, Elizabethville, Gratz, Halifax, Highspire, Hummelstown, Millersburg, Paxtang, Pillow and Steelton elect at-large council members, as does Dauphin County’s only city, Harrisburg.

Of Dauphin County’s 23 townships, only two — Susquehanna and Swatara — elect representatives by ward. 

Of the 12 school districts that are in or partly in Dauphin County, seven elect members at-large: Derry, Halifax, Harrisburg, Middletown, Millersburg, Susquehanna and Steelton-Highspire. Five elect by region: Central Dauphin, Lower Dauphin, Susquenita, Upper Dauphin and Williams Valley.

Millersburg is the most recent Dauphin County borough to change from wards to at-large, doing so in 2013. It had two wards and six council members before voting to change to seven at-large council members.

In the ordinance that its council approved, it said it sought the change because “the Millersburg Borough Council has concluded that the ward system is archaic and serves no legitimate purpose” and council “has experienced difficulty in filling vacancies due to the ward system.” 

Those points echo the arguments made by Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III, a leading proponent of the council change here.

Chris McGann is the borough manager of Millersburg, which has about 2,500 people — less than a third of Middletown’s approximately 8,900 as of the 2010 census.

 “We were getting all these vacancies on council. We were having trouble filling those seats,” he told the Press And Journal as to the reason for the change. “Several times, we had one person interested, but they lived in the wrong ward,” 

That led borough officials to arrive at the conclusion that “this ward thing just isn’t working out here.”

After the change, he said he doesn’t think anyone in the borough noticed, and there was very little comment or controversy when the change was made or since.

“It’s a small enough town. It doesn’t really matter,” he said.

Now, they have “usually just enough people running.” There are few contested races, he said, but there have been enough candidates.

“We haven’t had any trouble filling the seats anymore. Can I directly attribute it to the change in seats? I don’t know,” he said.

McGann said he can’t think of any unintended consequences from the new way residents elect their borough council.

“We’ve been doing just fine ever since,” he said.

Christopher Dietz was the council president in Millersburg when the change was made, a seat he still holds. He agreed that the new setup appears to be working well.

“I’ve not received any negative comments from council people or the public,” he said, adding: “I haven’t noticed an impact and no one has said anything to me positively or negatively about it.”

He said there was once council resignation, a letter was put in the paper to seek candidates, and there were multiple people who showed interest, so they filled the seat.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 09 August 2016 15:28

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