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The time is now to get moving on the Elks Theatre

It’s time to figure out a plan for the Elks Theatre and carry it out, and it’s up to Mayor James H. Curry III and the Middletown Borough Council to do it.

The borough owns the theater, whether it wants to or not. Every day the theater sits without attention is another day it falls further into disrepair.

For a full year, the council has had before it a proposal from the Friends of the Elks. It’s a proposal on which it has not taken action.

The residents have made their voices heard. They want the theater restored. A response we have heard often from several Middletown Borough Council members in recent weeks is that they would listen to the will of the people when deciding how to vote on certain issues. This mostly applied to the issue of reducing the number of council members and changing how they are elected. We certainly hope this also applies to the Elks Theatre.

We were pleased to see that Second Ward council member Ian Reddinger put forth at least some plans to get the ball rolling, and the rest of council agreed with a key one Aug. 3: Money received from selling the McNair House property on the northeast corner of North Union and East Emaus streets, and the site of the former Klahr Building next to Roberto’s Pizza on South Union Street, will go toward Elks Theatre renovations. Money that the borough gets over the next two years from leasing a cell tower to AT&T — an estimated $50,000 — also would go for that purpose. If the borough recoups even only part of what it spent on the properties, and adding in the $50,000, that could mean a quarter of a million dollars toward the project.

Think about that: The borough’s vote committed potentially several hundred thousand dollars to a fund that can be used for only one thing. That’s quite a commitment in and of itself.

But that commitments leads to two crucial questions: What would the project be, and how much is the borough willing to spend?

The Friends of the Elks group says $500,000. Mayor James H. Curry III has said $1 million. Jonathan Crist, an attorney living in Conewago Township who operated the Elks Theatre from 1986 to 2005, estimated the figure at closer to $1.3 million during a July 21 public meeting. The fact is, at this point, no one knows for sure. That’s a problem, and it’s the first thing that must be addressed.

The owners of the Tattered Flag combined brewery/distillery/brew pub, who own the building except for the theater, seemed to offer a much-needed boost when they offered to have their contractors working on the building try to do an estimate for a project. But that, too, seems to have stalled.

Even putting a dollar amount on the renovation is problematic. Are we discussing a Rolls-Royce, all-the-bells-and-whistles project funded by the borough? Or are we discussing a basic, get-it-up-to-code project?

The plan put forth by the Friends of the Elks calls for the group to lease the theater for a dollar a year and operate it as a community-owned, not-for-profit, multi-function theater. It would operate primarily as a movie theatre that will show a continuous schedule of first-run films, classic films and host an annual film festival. It could play host to recitals by local dance schools and theatrical productions by local theater groups, including the Olmstead Players, Middletown’s community theatre. According to the proposal, the Friends of the Elks has been contacted by local individuals interested in producing events such as concerts and stand-up comedy shows. The plan calls for digital projection equipment.

Here is what we would like to see happen.

We are not convinced that the borough should be the long-term owner of the theater. However, the Friends of the Elks also don’t want to own it, and the council seems unwilling to sell it.

So if the borough is going to own it, then it needs to get a price for the bare-bones upgrades needed. In other words, get it up to code. Make sure the structure is sound. But it should not be anything fancy. Commit to spend those dollars.

Lease the theater to the Friends of the Elks for $1 a year. Let that group raise money for the bells and whistles it wants to see at the theater. The borough’s funding of the basics is the commitment it is looking for to move ahead. After that, it’s up to the group to get the fundraising, grant writing and donations it needs. Some sources it hopes to tap are the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Save America’s Treasures Program administered by the National Park Service, the Lewis J. Appell Jr. Preservation Fund for Central Pennsylvania of the National Trust of Historic Preservation, BonTon Stores Foundation, the Foundation for Enhancing Communities, and the George Frey Trust.

This can be done, but it’s going to take a concerted effort by the borough and the passion of the Friends of the Elks group to make it happen.

However, as we have stated previously, it is ultimately up to you. Those of you who care enough to speak out have shown support for the theater. Will you support it once it is open? If not, then this entire process could be for naught.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 August 2016 12:15

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After vetting, reducing council members has our support

We never said we opposed switching the size of the Middletown Borough Council or the way in which its members are elected.

We only questioned the speed at which it was being pushed.

Now that it looks likely to happen, and that some of the questions have been answered, we are more comfortable with it moving forward.

When the topic was discussed at the Aug. 3 council meeting, there still seemed to be questions about how it would work, not least of which being what would happen to the current council members.

Since our initial trepidation, the Press And Journal clarified with Dauphin County election officials that the process likely would go very smoothly as long as the ordinance is worded properly. Council members would keep their seats and fill out their terms as if they change hadn’t happened. Voters would continue to go to the polls in the same location. The change to at-large would put Middletown in line with most other boroughs and townships in Dauphin County. Officials in Millersburg, the most recent Dauphin County borough to change from ward council members to at-large, reported no problems and in fact it seemed to help get good candidates. There seems to be little public opposition to the change, or at least none that has been voiced.

We still are worried that the First Ward might be underrepresented, but it is up to the residents there to make sure that doesn’t happen by finding good candidates to run.

We expect the ordinance will pass Aug. 16, and in the end, we support it.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 August 2016 11:55

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Congrats on another great Night Out

Middletown should be proud of another great National Night Out event. 

Hoffer Park again was full on Tuesday night, Aug. 2. Estimates put the crowd at about 4,000 people. That’s an amazing number for a borough of less than 9,000.

Congrats especially to Officer Gary Rux and the rest of the organizers for making it happen.

We hope those who enjoyed all the free stuff at the event remember why it was being held: to foster relations between residents and borough police.

More than ever, in these uncertain times, that is a worthwhile goal.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 10 August 2016 11:53

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Why the urgency on changing council’s makeup?

Maybe it’s because it’s such a major change in our borough government.

Maybe it’s because we worry about a lack of representation for areas of the borough.

Or maybe it’s just because whenever a politician tries to move a proposal through the system quickly, we get suspicious.

But something doesn’t feel quite right about Mayor James H. Curry III’s plan to reduce the number of borough council members and eliminate Middletown’s ward system.

In fact, his actions at the July 19 council meeting harken back to a previous period when many — including Curry himself — believed that issues were ram-rodded through the body without proper vetting.

We respect that he and some other members of council are all-in on this proposal. Curry and others have been pounding the sidewalks getting signatures on petitions and working hard to raise awareness on the issue. We might ultimately agree that the number of Middletown Borough Council members should be reduced. But this just seems to be moving too quickly, and we are not convinced that seven at-large council members and/or scrapping the town’s three wards is the best plan.

Curry wants to reduce the number of council members from nine to seven, and get rid of the current setup that has three members from each of the borough’s three wards. He would get rid of wards altogether.

With two vacancies, he argues, it’s the perfect time to do it. Council can, he says, change its makeup through an ordinance.

It’s all neat and tidy, so why wait?

While the system might seem tedious at times, let’s remember that expediency doesn’t always make for good government.

It’s obvious that Curry has had this on his mind for awhile. The problem is, it’s new to the public. So while it might be fully thought out to him, it’s not for us. Give us some time to consider it and make an informed decision.

It didn’t help his argument that at the meeting at which he made this proposal, four of six people interested in filling one of the empty seats attended the council meeting to be interviewed by the body. That hardly seems to be indicative of the apathy that Curry says is plaguing the current way we elect council members. We also can’t ignore the elephant in the room: Eliminating wards threatens representation for the First Ward, traditionally home to a majority of the borough’s minority residents. There is a socioeconomic divide that is undeniable. Without wards and some guarantee that there will be council members from the First Ward, are we truly representing all of Middletown?

In one of two Facebook videos that Curry posted on the topic, he argues: “The necessity for wards has diminished and disappeared. It’s an antiquated system and the need for it no longer exists. The main reason for having wards is that you live in a city that is so big, that you need an elected official that lives in your particular area so that you feel you’re being represented in the city as a whole.”

We don’t totally buy that. No, this is not New York City, or even Harrisburg. But neighborhoods still matter in Middletown. And having a council member who lives in your neighborhood can’t be dismissed as antiquated. Another argument Curry makes on video: “When a nine-member council comes together to make a multimillion decision, how is it fair that as a resident, you’re only responsible for putting three of those people on the body?”

That’s how the legislative branch works. We don’t elect every state legislator, and they are making even bigger decisions that the council about our lives. Curry is worried about the number of resignations, that three of the nine council members will be appointed rather than elected. But will having fewer members really slow down the number of resignations?

If it’s too hard to keep people on council, then shouldn’t we look at the reasons why they are leaving and the tenor of borough government instead of simply saying, it would be easier with fewer members?

Our suggestion would be to set up council as it is done in other states: Have a mix of wards and at-large council members. If each ward had one representative and then there were four at-large council members, you could have seven and maintain representation from each ward.

But that isn’t likely to happen, and the issue cannot be placed on the ballot as a referendum to let all voters in Middletown decide.

So please attend if you can tonight’s borough council meeting. The topic will be discussed. If you agree or oppose the change or want to offer an alternative, make sure your voice is heard.

It is likely after discussion tonight that a vote could be taken at the next council meeting in less than two weeks.

If the reduction is going to happen, we would prefer that it not happen immediately. Fill the open councilors’ positions and eliminate and/or reduce the number of council members effective at a future date. Allow people who want to serve now to find out what borough government is all about.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 August 2016 16:26

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