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Let’s be friends: Two Penn State Harrisburg student leaders reveal fellow students’ views of the town

 

goodstudentphotoPress and Journal Photo by Dan Miller -- Michael J. Passiment, left, and Naseem Zomorodi want Penn State Harrisburg students and Middletown residents to forge stronger ties. 

 

Middletown Borough leaders have a lot to say about Penn State Harrisburg. But what do the students of Penn State Harrisburg have to say about Middletown?

 

Penn State Harrisburg has been described as holding the key to the economic future of Middletown. As a recent report done by consultants on the town’s economic potential put it, “If the notion is that a rising tide lifts all boats, Penn State Harrisburg should be considered the most likely source of that rising tide.”

 

 

 

 

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 07 October 2014 20:02

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Theater group wants to lease Elks Building

A theater group based in the midstate wants to lease the Elks Building in Middletown and turn it into a regional performing arts center.

 

Phantom Theatre Company sent a letter of intent seeking to enter into negotiations with the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority, which acquired the Elks Building from the Greater Middletown Economic Development Corp. on Sept. 18.

 

The authority voted on Sept. 30 to approve the letter of intent, clearing the way for  discussions with the theater company. The letter of intent is nonbinding, obligating the authority and Phantom Theatre to do nothing more than hold talks in good faith, said authority Chairman Matt Tunnell.

 

However, Tunnell said the prospect of a performing arts center being located in the Elks is something exciting to ponder.

 

“I think there is some real eagerness to explore it and see where it goes,” Tunnell said. “We are thrilled.”

 

According to its Web site, Phantom is “a nonprofit theatre organization which strives to engage and entertain the community with professional theatre production standards in the central Pennsylvania area.”

 

Phantom Theatre’s most recent production, “Bare – A Pop Opera,” was staged at Gullifty’s Restaurant and Underground in Camp Hill, according to its Web site.

 

In its letter of intent to the authority, Phantom Theatre Company says that the community performing arts center proposed for the Elks Building “will include but not be limited to live performances such as dramatic theatre; musical theatre; dance; concerts; and other performances pursuant to the mission of Phantom Theatre Company.”

 

“PTC intends to honor the historic use of the Elks Theatre facility by continuing to use it at times as a movie theatre,’’ the letter said. “We are a community-oriented organization and look forward to nurturing growth of the arts in Middletown and the surrounding area with the potential for other community organizations to perform and use this space. We envision educational and other programs oriented to youth and families.”

 

The letter of intent is signed by Wendi Dobson, co-founder of Phantom Theatre Company and president of the PTC board. She did not return several phone calls from the Press And Journal seeking comment.

 

According to a story that ran in PennLive in January, Phantom Theatre Company was planning to turn the former River Rescue building on South Cameron Street in Harrisburg into a performing arts center.

 

Dobson’s husband, Philip Dobson, who is a real estate developer in Harrisburg, said that the River Rescue plan fell through when the city changed the zoning covering the property.

 

Phil Dobson said that the new designation would not allow for “soft uses” such as theater or retail. Under the city’s new rules, a performing arts center is not even allowed in the building under special exception.

 

That led Phantom Theatre to begin looking elsewhere for a place to carry out its vision. That search has led to the Elks.

 

“It’s such a beautiful theater, such a beautiful building, and a 100-year-old building,” said Phil Dobson. “I love historic buildings and I think the Elks Building really has a lot of character.”

 

He has experience in bringing new life to historic properties. He said he is just the third owner in the history of the 150-year-old Cameron homestead in the 400 block of N. Front St. in Harrisburg, which Dobson said he restored.

 

Dobson also has a track record in commercial development. Most recently, he has been a partner in transforming the former Sacred Heart Catholic Elementary School on South Cameron Street into the River City Blues Club and Dart Room, which opened in late August.

 

Phantom Theatre’s letter indicates that the company is interested in leasing the entire Elks Building. Besides the Elks Theatre, the building is home to one commercial tenant, Alma’s House of Flowers and Gifts, which has been in the Elks for 36 years.

 

Tunnell said that Alma’s has a current lease with the authority and that the authority is “obligated to live up to the terms” of that lease. He could not say when the lease will expire. However, Tunnell pledged that Alma’s is “absolutely part of the discussion” when it comes to what happens in the Elks Building going forward.

 

“We need to hear their ideas and vision. We are certainly going to work with them,” Tunnell said of Kathy Suhr, who has owned Alma’s for the last 21 years.

 

The authority currently has a month-to-month agreement with GMEDC for GMEDC to continue running the Elks Theatre. Asked what the talks with Phantom Theatre could lead to regarding the future of the theater, Tunnell said, “I don’t know,” because those discussions have not even begun.

 

But Tunnell said the authority remains committed to the theater. “We have to keep the lights on and continue to operate” the theater, he added, referring to the agreement with GMEDC.

 

At least for his part, Tunnell has said the authority’s goal is to stabilize the Elks Building physically and financially, and to eventually turn the property over to the private sector and the tax rolls.

 

While Phantom Theatre is a nonprofit, Tunnell noted that the group’s backers – including Philip Dobson – bring considerable experience in commercial ventures to the table that could come into play if the group leased the entire building.

 

He expects that the authority’s discussions with the group will focus on a “mixed use” concept for the building, referring to at least part of the property being devoted to purely commercial ventures to enhance the building’s revenue base.

 

Dobson said part of the attractiveness of the Elks Building is how it relates to plans currently underway for the redevelopment of Middletown.

 

“Hopefully it will be the cultural square of Middletown,” Dobson said of the Elks Building. “It’s always nice to be in an area where things are improving.”

 

Dan Miller: 717-944-4628, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 07 October 2014 19:26

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State lifts hold on $1 million in grant funds: But Middletown, GMEDC must repay $17,192 from 2009 Main Street grant

The state has lifted a hold it had placed on state funds to Middletown Borough while the borough and the Greater Middletown Economic Development Corp. provided information on expenses paid by a 2009 Main Street improvement grant that the state had awarded to the borough on GMEDC’s behalf.

 

Heidi Havens, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, told the Press And Journal in an e-mail that the hold – or “flag,” as she called it – was lifted after the borough provided her department with an audit regarding the $105,000 Main Street grant on Sept. 25.

 

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 September 2014 20:30

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Borough leaders approve 50-year lease of water, sewer system

 

leasephotoKnullPress and Journal Photo by Dan Miller: Resident Dawn Knull speaks during a joint meeting of Middletown Borough Council and the Middletown Borough Authority on the lease of the town’s water and sewer system.

 

In one fell swoop, Middletown Borough appears to have entirely eliminated the town’s current long-term debt.

 

That sounds like a magician’s trick – a rabbit jumping out of a hat. Instead, it is the up-front price that the borough is to get in exchange for agreeing to lease the town’s water and sewer system for 50 years to United Water, a French-owned private company whose U.S. operations are based in Harrington Park, N.J.

 

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 30 September 2014 20:27

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Elks transfer is completed; repairs are next, leaders say

closingphoto9 24 14Press and Journal Photo by Dan Miller -- Attending the real-estate closing for the Elks Building are, from left, Christopher McNamara, Middletown Borough Council president; Gordon Einhorn, vice president of GMEDC; and Salvatore Bauccio, solicitor for the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority.

 

The historic Elks Building in downtown Middletown is now owned by the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority.

 

Representatives of the authority and Greater Middletown Economic Development Corp., its previous owner, met Thursday, Sept. 18, in a seventh-floor conference room at the Harrisburg office of McNees Wallace & Nurick – the law firm that is solicitor to the borough and the authority – to transfer ownership of the Elks Building to the authority.

 

The authority’s acquisition of the Elks Building was a cashless transfer where the authority assumed responsibility for a $500,000 mortgage on the building that 

GMEDC owed to the borough, said Matt Tunnell, authority chairman.

 

The authority, with the separate approval of Middletown Borough Council, drew down $500,000 from a $3 million line of credit through PNC Bank to pay off the mortgage.

 

That $500,000 will go toward a revolving loan and grant fund to help pay for economic development projects in Middletown. The fund already has $579,000, so adding the additional $500,000 will make for roughly $1.07 million available to support development projects.

 

Tunnell said the authority plans to repay the $500,000 to the bank from proceeds the borough expects to soon receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency – proceeds that would reimburse the borough for money that was spent tied to the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.

 

The authority’s purchase of the Elks Building puts on a fast track plans to shore up the building physically, including rehabilitation of the structure.

 

The ICDA has approved a $145,000 proposal from Lobar Construction Services of York to replace the roof over all parts of the building except the Elks Theatre, a long-operating movie theater. The theater roof has already been replaced. The roof project is to be paid for with proceeds from the economic development fund.

 

Tunnell said the hope is that Lobar can start the roof work in the first week of October, and that the roof project can be done by the end of October.

 

The authority still hopes to close the Elks Theatre for a period sometime this fall to complete repairs to the theater ceiling and install digital conversion equipment. Tunnell said fall is a traditionally slow period for theaters, but that the Elks must be able to reopen by Thanksgiving in time for the busy holiday season.

 

Tunnell said the authority does not yet have a final estimate for the theater ceiling work, but that this money also would come from the economic development fund.

 

The digital conversion is expected to cost at least $50,000. The conversion may not be eligible for money from the economic development fund, so another source to pay for the project may have to be identified, Tunnell said.

 

Tunnell said that as part of the closing the authority signed a month-to-month agreement for GMEDC to continue operating the theater.

 

As part of the real estate closing, the authority paid about $9,000 in property taxes on the Elks Building that Tunnell said had become delinquent under GMEDC. The money was disbursed to the borough, Middletown Area School District and Dauphin County.

 

Because the authority is a government agency, the Elks Building will be taken off the property tax rolls for as long as the authority owns it, Tunnel said. If the building starts “making money” while owned by the authority, the authority might discuss making a payment in lieu of taxes to the borough, he said.

 

However, speaking as one authority member, Tunnell emphasized that it is not the authority’s intent to own the Elks Building in the long term. The goal is to stabilize the building physically and financially and put it back on the private market and on the tax rolls.

 

“The ultimate goal is to transfer it to a private developer,” Tunnell said. “From my perspective, the ICDA really serves as an intermediary in being able to purchase properties and bring resources to the table, and then return them back” to the tax rolls, he said.

 

“I do not perceive a long-term vision where the ICDA becomes the dominant owner of real estate in the downtown,’’ Tunnell said. “That is not our role. Our role is to get these distressed properties to a point where they are marketable.”

 

The authority is also “working diligently” with two existing commercial tenants – a flower and gift shop and an antiques and collectibles shop – to address ongoing “issues,” Tunnell said.

 

“Those will be resolved to make sure that all landlord responsibilities are taken care of and addressed, and to make sure the building is managed in a way that the tenants are successful,” he said.

 

During the closing, GMEDC Vice Chairman Gordon Einhorn said that Paul Bear, owner of a third business that was in the Elks Building – The Turquoise Bear Trading Post – left months ago and has not returned.

 

The flower shop, Alma’s House of Flowers and Gifts, is by far the business that has been in the Elks the longest – 36 years, according to owner Kathy Suhr. Suhr has been with Alma’s for 21 years, the last 15 as owner.

 

The borough and the authority’s intention to buy the Elks was hardly a secret. It has been in the works for a long time.

 

To Suhr, the borough sent a clear signal as to its future vision for the building in the June edition of the borough newsletter, Middletown Matters. And that vision did not appear to include Alma’s.

 

Instead, a Photoshop-like artist’s depiction in the newsletter showed a Penn State Harrisburg Barnes & Noble bookstore in the space that currently houses Alma’s.

 

“It was very disheartening to open up the town newsletter and to see my building with another name on it. That was very hurtful,” Suhr said.

 

But Don Holtzman, senior director of student services and special projects at Penn State Harrisburg, told the Press And Journal that he has no knowledge of any intention by Barnes & Noble to locate a bookstore in the Elks Building.

 

The plan all along has been for a new Barnes & Noble bookstore to be part of the Student Enrichment Center on campus that Penn State hopes to build by the fall of 2016.

 

Barnes & Noble has not responded to inquiries by the Press And Journal.

 

Now that the authority owns the Elks, Suhr said she can’t help but feel “very anxious” about what that will mean for the building, and for her.

 

Suhr said she supported GMEDC “100 percent.” She does not fault the organization for transferring the building to the authority.

 

“The GMEDC did what they had to do,” Suhr said. “There was a lack of support, and it’s understandable that they turned it over.”

Last Updated on Tuesday, 23 September 2014 20:23

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