Published Date Written by Jim Lewis
Can you imagine a vibrant downtown Middletown, with a performing arts center, shops and museums, a new town square at the intersection of Union and Emaus streets? That vision, drawn up for Middletown Borough Council by consultant Daniel Anderton, a landscape architect for design consultant Dewberry, is exciting.
Exciting, but not completely new. A plan to revitalize downtown Middletown was presented a couple years ago by the Greater Middletown Economic Development Corp. (GMEDC), and it included some of the ideas in the preliminary sketches that Dewberry presented to a council Planning Committee on Oct. 16.
In fact, GMEDC devised a “grand plan,’’ as one corporation leader described it, to renovate the Elks Theatre building into an arts center and retail space for $4.5 million. Why didn’t it happen? Money.
It takes a combination of state funds, corporate donations and borough money to allow GMEDC, a nonprofit, to finance economic development projects. A campaign to raise millions had never been conducted in Middletown, and no one could predict how successful it would be.
Meanwhile, the borough’s commitment to finance such projects has been called into question in recent years as a new, frugal majority intent on drastically cutting expenses to lower electric rates in town. The GMEDC even cancelled its annual Autumn Fest celebration in downtown Middletown, charging that council was not interested in funding the event and, by extension, not interested in funding GMEDC. Both sides traded claims that They Never Called Me About It. The festival was never resurrected.
Council would have us believe that GMEDC has done next to nothing to renovate the downtown business district, and therefore must take matters into its own hands. It voted on Oct. 16 to take the Elks Theatre building, owned by GMEDC, and the vacant Klahr jewelry building by eminent domain, a legal process that can be lengthy.
“We’re tired of sitting around waiting for things to happen,’’ said Chris Courogen, borough secretary and director of communications. “We’re going to make things happen.’’ What’s striking about the move is that council does not have a plan yet to finance any renovations to either building. Yet it has moved to wage a long and, likely, expensive legal battle over them.
Council’s move to take the Elks Theatre is particularly puzzling. It is attempting to take the building out of the hands of a nonprofit and, presumably – if there are more specific plans, council has not made them public – assume financial responsibility for its future. Council did just the opposite with the Middletown Public Library, telling us that eliminating it as a borough department and reincarnating it as a nonprofit, to which donors could make tax-deductible donations, was the wisest way to keep it operating, and the best option for the taxpayer’s wallet or purse.
To Stefan Klowsowski, GMEDC’s former executive director, council’s desire to lead a major renovation of the business district is “quite a turnaround.’’ It seems to have come as a surprise to some councilors, too – Councilor John Brubaker, a staunch supporter of council’s previous cost-cutting measures, voted against the eminent domain moves, saying he didn’t have enough time to analyze them. Indeed, the move to take by eminent domain begs the question: How does council plan to pay for revitalization? How much will it cost the borough?
Council hopes to enlist support from the business community for its plans, Courogen said – though it should be noted that GMEDC is made up of some of the town’s business owners, and council has failed to engage the corporation in a partnership to improve Middletown.
In its defense, council notes that GMEDC has not approved the membership of two of its nominees to the corporation’s board – Courogen and Council President Christopher McNamara. Perhaps the corporation was wary of a body that, unable to coax the Middletown Borough Authority to agree to a bond refinancing it saw as a plan to make money, voted to go to court to remove the authority’s chairman. Strong-arm tactics such as legal actions, not consensus-building, appear to be council’s method of choice. Asked why council is invested in Dewberry’s revitalization vision, but didn’t seem to commit to GMEDC’s similar vision, Councilor David Rhen replied, “Why the hell don’t you ask (Press And Journal publisher Joe) Sukle why he hasn’t done jack shit with GMEDC? As long as Joe Sukle owns the Press And Journal, I am not talking to you.’’ Sukle has served on GMEDC’s board, and has been blamed by council for public opposition to its library decisions.
It’s a shame – everyone involved in revitalizing this town is in this town, and claim to have the borough’s best interests at heart. If there is no sincere effort to work together for a common goal, can that goal be achieved? Will taking the Elks from GMEDC truly result in a revitalization that will happen – or is it an exercise that promises to make attorneys and design consultants money, but bring revitalization to a dead end?