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Condemned diner on Grant Street being torn down

By Dan Miller danmiller@pressandjournal.com
Posted 7/11/17

Owners of a long-abandoned former diner next to Harrisburg International Airport in Middletown have started tearing the building down.

The saga of the former Gateway Diner at 312 Grant St. is …

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Condemned diner on Grant Street being torn down

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Owners of a long-abandoned former diner next to Harrisburg International Airport in Middletown have started tearing the building down.

The saga of the former Gateway Diner at 312 Grant St. is a telling example of how long it can take for just one dilapidated property in the borough to be remedied, in one form or another.

The diner had been condemned as unfit for human occupancy more than five years ago — in February 2012 — by a code enforcement officer who has not worked for the borough for several years.

The building remained that way, seemingly frozen in time, until by April 2017 when Middletown councilor and former long-time borough mayor Robert Reid — the diner’s next-door neighbor — started raising concerns publicly about the structure being a nuisance and a safety hazard to the surrounding area.

By then the back and side of the former diner appeared to be caving in. Someone had placed orange plastic fencing around the building, but Reid suggested that would not deter adventurous children.

In early May, Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter told the Press & Journal that the property was being handled by Commonwealth Codes of Manheim, a company that the borough contracts with for code enforcement, and that a notice had been sent to the diner’s owner, William Heckman of Bainbridge.

On May 9, borough Interim Zoning & Code Enforcement Officer Robert L. Moyer sent a letter to Heckman giving him 30 days to respond to an order from the borough that the property be brought up to code and be made safe.

The letter advised Heckman that the borough would re-inspect the property on Friday, June 9, after which Heckman could be subject to fines from $100 to $1,000 per day.

Essentially, Heckman was given the choice of bringing the building up to code, or of demolishing it, Moyer told the Press & Journal in a July 6 phone interview.

The borough would demolish the building and place a lien on the property to be reimbursed by Heckman, or Heckman could apply to demolish the building himself, Moyer said.

Heckman applied to the borough for a permit to demolish the building, which was granted in late June.

The permit gave the owners 180 days — six months — within which to start demolishing the building, according to Moyer. However, by June 29 it was evident that the former diner was in the process of being razed, and work has continued since then.

Once the building is demolished, the owners have another 180 days “to completely grade and finish the project,” Moyer said.

Future use?

The former diner is in an area of the borough zoned for residential use. However, the diner had been a pre-existing non-conforming use — “grandfathered” — because the structure predated the borough’s current zoning map.

Because of that, Moyer said Heckman could build a new diner and reopen it on the same lot, as long as he did so within a year of the former diner being razed.

Otherwise, the non-conforming status would expire and Heckman would need to obtain special permission from the borough, such as a special exception, to open a new diner at the site.

At just one-quarter of an acre, the property may be large enough for construction of a small house. The lot could also be left as vacant open space.

Moyer said he doesn’t know what Heckman plans to do with the property. Heckman did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

But Heckman did speak with the Press & Journal by telephone shortly after Reid made his public comments about the condition of the former diner during the April council meeting.

Long history

Heckman, a retired state police officer and a former district judge, acquired the diner for $29,000 in 1990 through a sheriff’s sale.

He claimed that he was not aware that the building had been condemned, contending that the borough had never informed him of that.

However, the borough sent Heckman a certified letter dated June 26, 2012, informing him that the building had been declared “unsafe.” The Press & Journal obtained a copy of the letter through a Right-To-Know request seeking all documents in the borough’s possession pertaining to the diner.

The diner now being torn down was erected in 1950, according to county tax records. However, Heckman said that a diner had been at the property since 1938.

Reid recalls it as the Gateway Diner because it was almost directly across from the entrance to the former Olmsted Air Force Base.

“I used to go into there and eat,” said Reid, whose father worked on the base for 25 years. Reid worked on the base for a year and a half before he left to go to college.

Olmsted closed in 1969. The diner survived and became known as Betty’s Diner under owner Betty Baumbach. By the time Heckman bought the diner in 1990, it had been closed for three and a half years, he told the Press & Journal.

A busy place

Heckman, 75, said he bought the diner “to make a living” because he could no longer get a job with the state or federal government.

He was able to reopen it, and said the diner had a somewhat thriving business in the 1990s. Most of his customers came from Highspire or from the west end of Middletown.

“It was busy,” said Heckman, who cooked. “We did 40 to 45 breakfasts in the morning and half that at lunch. We did very little at night. We didn’t affect anybody downtown. We didn’t affect Kuppy’s and the Brownstone wasn’t there.”

Heckman said that the beginning of the end came in the late 1990s, when the borough closed Ann Street as part of a reconstruction of the intersection leading into Harrisburg International Airport.

The street being closed “killed my business totally.” He said the diner also lost its parking. Heckman said he received a letter from the borough in 1996 showing plans for the borough to construct a temporary parking lot to accommodate the diner during the project, but it was not built.

“They never gave me a parking lot, blocked my street. We took ever penny we saved to try to live,” Heckman said.

Heckman suggests Reid was partially responsible, saying Reid “didn’t like” the diner.

The borough’s property file on the diner does include a typewritten note that appears to be from Reid, in which Reid says he is opposed to installing a parking lot at the diner.

However, Reid goes on to write in the same note “I further wish to state that I am not opposed to the reopening of the diner, just the installation of the parking lot.”

Storm damage

The diner nevertheless survived the project and lived to see the reopening of Ann Street. But the real end came for good in September 2011, when the diner was damaged by flooding from Tropical Storm Lee. Heckman said he closed the diner the same day, and it never reopened.

He said he wanted to fix the diner and reopen it, but he didn’t have the money. He said he tried to get a loan from the borough, but “they said no money for you.” The condemnation, whether Heckman knew of it or not, came five months after the flood.

In April Heckman told the Press & Journal he was no longer interested in reopening the diner, and was not able to do so anyway.

He acknowledged that he owes $6,498.26 in delinquent property taxes on the property, for the years 2014, 2015, and 2016.

“I didn’t pay the taxes because I thought it was going for sheriff’s sale,” he told the Press & Journal.

Heckman also contended at the time that he did not know how bad a shape the building was in.

“I don’t want to fight with anybody. I do care that someone doesn’t get hurt,” he said. “If they want to buy the place, they can buy it.”

How many condemned buildings?

How many other condemned buildings are there in Middletown? It’s possible that the borough itself doesn't even know.

In May, the Press & Journal submitted a Right-To-Know request, asking the borough provide a list of all properties in the borough that are condemned.

In a response from Open Records Officer Grace Miller dated May 11, the borough said the request had been declined because the borough under law is not required “to create a record which does not currently exist. ... After review, it has been determined that no records responsive to your request as set forth above exist.”

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