Written by Dan Miller
Tattered Flag — the partnership converting the Elks Building in downtown Middletown into a combined brewery/distillery/brew pub — now also wants to partner with the nonprofit group Friends of the Elks Theatre to reopen the theater, which has been closed since April 2015.
That announcement came from Mike Dalton with the Friends group during a meeting held by Middletown Borough Council in the MCSO Building on Thursday, July 21, to get input from residents on what they want done with the theater.
What came through loud and clear is that residents want the Elks Theatre reopened, not just as a theater but as a multi-functioning venue that would also host concerts, comedians, plays and the like.
No one spoke in support of Councilor Ian Reddinger’s proposal that the borough sell the Elks Theatre to the Friends group for $1 — an idea that the Friends group says it is not interested in pursuing.
Reddinger also previously suggested the best future use of the theater would be to be converted into luxury condominiums or retail stores by private investors. No one spoke in support of that idea either.
About 40 residents attended the meeting, which started with a brief tour of the theater which is just down the block from the MCSO on West Emaus Street.
Several speakers noted that the Elks Theatre is the second oldest continuously operating movie theater in the United States, and for that reason alone should be preserved as a theater.
How can it be done?
So with the question of what people want to see done with the theater apparently settled, the issue remains how to make that happen.
Estimates of how much money will be needed to reopen the theater now range from the $370,000 proposal submitted to the borough by the Friends of the Elks group, to new estimates running close to $1.3 million that were presented to council during Thursday night’s meeting.
The Friends of the Elks proposal is actually more like $500,000, when the cost of redoing restrooms is added in. Friends of the Elks has proposed operating the theater and leasing it from the borough for 10 years. The group says the borough should continue to own the theater.
The Friends group is looking to the borough to invest the money to reopen the theater, although the group has pledged to assist with fundraising and seeking grants.
Tattered Flag partnering with the Friends group was one of several new possibilities for reopening the Elks Theatre that emerged during the meeting — although no one came forward with any big oversized checks or presented a definitive plan for how the money would be raised.
Tattered Flag has received a $1.5 million loan from the borough toward the brewery/distillery/brew pub, including $400,000 to purchase all of the Elks Building from the borough except for the Elks Theatre. The remaining $1.1 million is going toward converting the Elks Building space into the combined brewery/distillery/brew pub.
‘Out of the blue’
The offer from Tattered Flag to enter into a partnership came “out of the blue” within 24 hours of the theater meeting taking place, said Dalton.
Members of the Tattered Flag partnership could not attend the meeting, and details of the proposed arrangement were not presented.
But Dalton said Tattered Flag is interested in “teaming up” with Friends of the Elks to “co-operate” the theater. Tattered Flag is looking to the theater as a venue for live concerts and entertainment that could be done in conjunction with the brewery/distillery operation next door, Dalton said.
He read a statement from Tattered Flag partner Ben Ramsay saying that A.P. Williams, a construction company, could go through the theater and provide “the true costs” of what it will take to reopen the theater as a multifunctioning entertainment venue. A.P. Williams is the company doing the renovations in the rest of the Elks Building for the Tattered Flag project.
Another of the Tattered Flag partners, Pat Devlin, afterward told the Press And Journal that it would be “mutually beneficial” for Tattered Flag and Friends of the Elks to work together.
What happens to the theater “absolutely” impacts Tattered Flag, he said.
“That building is attached to us. If it goes unused for long periods of time and ends up causing a problem for our building, that’s an issue obviously,” Devlin added. “We just want to see something good happen to it, however we can help and however we can be involved.”
But no decisions can be made until A.P. Williams does a walk through and can nail down “the real cost” of what it would take to reopen the theater, Devlin said.
Former operator speaks
Council also heard a presentation from Jonathan Crist, an attorney living in Conewago Township who operated the Elks Theatre from February 1986 to October 2005.
Crist read about council holding the theater meeting, and reached out to Council President Ben Kapenstein, who invited Crist to submit a proposal.Crist offered to lease the theater from the borough and operate it, if the theater can be property restored. He estimated the job at $1.26 million, with construction costs totaling $840,000 and the rest for engineering and equipment.
Crist and a partner own two downtown movie theaters in Pennsylvania; one the Roxy Theatre in Northampton near Allentown, and the Grand Theatre in East Greenville in Montgomery County.
Contrary to the view expressed a few weeks ago by Reddinger, a single-screen movie theater is still viable in today’s economy, Crist told the Press And Journal in a phone interview after the meeting. The key is booking films that suit your audience.
“We’re doing it in both places,” he said, referring to the Roxy and to the Grand Theatre. “We are running ‘Finding Dory’ three bucks a head in Northampton. We will put 6,000 people through there in a week.”
Crist said he’s not interested in buying the Elks Theatre and he’s not in a position to help the borough come up with the nearly $1.3 million to reopen the theater.
Getting the money
Grants are out there to cover most if not all the cost, but it could take years to come up with the money unless the borough is fortunate enough to get one grant to pay for the whole thing.
As for justifying tax dollars, money spent to reopen the Elks Theatre should be viewed in the context of a broader strategy.
“It’s never going to make any money,” Crist said of the theater alone. “You are trying to save the downtown. If you expect it to serve a profit — forget about it.”
The theaters in Northampton and in East Greenville are about all there is to attract people to those respective downtowns, Crist said. The prospects would seem better in Middletown, where the downtown already has Alfred’s Victorian, the Brownstone Cafe, and now Tattered Flag.
If council needed a jump-start to help raise money to reopen the theater, the best offer of the night came from Phil Bennett, a singer and entertainer who lives on Ann Street.
Bennett said he would give a free concert, with all the money raised going to the theater.
Bennett then gave council and the audience a taste of what’s to come by delivering an on-the-spot a cappella rendition of “I Get Misty.”
Other speakers expressed a can-do attitude that anything is possible.
“Obviously we have some passion in this room. Passion is what it takes,” said Chris Davis, who lives in the first block of North Union Street diagonally across from the Elks. “The borough and the community need to work together. Wouldn’t this be a great story if we could pull this off?”
“To me it’s obvious now. Everybody seems to be on the same page. They want the Elks Theatre,” Council President Ben Kapenstein said after the meeting. “Council seems to want it, the public seems to want it, now it’s about how we deliver it. … We need to find a way to protect the taxpayers as much as possible, and to make sure that every dollar that is spent is spent in a good way and that we are not over-spending and spending beyond our means.”
Taking on debt is one possible way for helping to pay for the Elks Theatre project, Kapenstein said. Since leasing the water and sewer systems to Suez in 2014, the borough remains debt free except for repaying a $1.5 million loan to Dauphin County for the streetscape, and the loan is being repaid not by tax dollars but through the borough’s liquid fuels allocation from the state, Kapenstein said.
Taking out debt means that the cost of reopening the theater would be borne not just by today’s residents but by “future generations,” he said.
Reddinger after the meeting acknowledged reopening the theater is what the town wants. But as much of the money as possible should be cobbled together through grants and fundraisers.
The borough as long as it owns the building is obligated to spend whatever is necessary to make sure that the building is safe and habitable for any future use, Reddinger said. Any tax dollars on the theater beyond that should be subject to results of a voter referendum, he added.
Council Vice President Damon Suglia said his position against using tax dollars to reopen the theater had softened in light of the overwhelming sentiment expressed during the meeting.
“But if we do have to spend tax dollars we have to find a way to supplement that” with alternative funding sources, Suglia said.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 July 2016 16:02
Written by Eric Wise
Residents will come together from 6 to 9 p.m. Aug. 2 for Middletown Night Out, an annual event that has blossomed in recent years as it attracts larger and larger crowds to celebrate community unity while encouraging a strong rapport between neighbors and police.
Middletown’s celebration at Hoffer Park joins the town with more than 16,000 communities in the United States that hold a National Night Out, an event that began in 1981 to allow the community to meet local police officers.
All events are free. This year will feature bouncy houses and slides, facepainting, a clown on stilts and pony rides for kids. The Hershey’s Kissmobile will be on site, handing out candy. Other sponsors offering displays will include Zoo America, the Air National Guard and pet therapy providers. The Middletown Hummelstown Railroad, a short walk from Hoffer Park, will offer free rides.
Community groups will offer a variety of performances and displays, including local Boy Scouts, local Girl Scouts, Capital Area Extreme Cheerleading (formerly Raider Extreme) and Sharon’s School of Dance.
The highlight of Middletown Night Out for many attendees is the free food sponsored by the community’s restaurants, businesses and organizations.
This year, Alfred’s Victorian and the Brownstone Cafe will both offer signature soups during the Night Out. The American Legion will serve more than 1,000 hamburgers and hot dogs, Prince Edwin’s Spring Creek Lodge will serve barbecue sliders and fries.
Middletown’s police patrolman Gary Rux said he has more than 60 volunteers lined up, not including all the people attending on behalf of sponsoring organizations, local churches and businesses.
Bigger and bigger
Rux has expanded the Middletown event to include more activities and to feature other emergency responders. This year includes Lower Swatara Police, Penn State Harrisburg Campus Police, Pennsylvania State Police and the Dauphin County sheriff.
“I had a different vision,” said Rux, who took over the event from patrolman Mark Laudenslager four years ago. Rux reached out and got more of the community involved, which has resulted in crowds topping 3,000 people, compared with the crowds of around 500 about 10 years ago.
Rux called Laudenslager “instrumental” in seeing the event through every year, although he has other duties that require a lot of his time.
Despite several stories of communities in conflict with police that have received a lot of news coverage this year, Rux said Middletown’s bonds with the police run deep.
“It’s always been a community giving their all for the police,” he said. “Everyone has been willing to volunteer. I like to think they do it for their community.”
Rux said Middletown’s officers are approachable, and events like this allow people from the community “to get to know them a little better.”
Dauphin County represented
This year, Middletown and Penn State Harrisburg Campus police will team up to present an interactive simulation of driving under the influence.
The Dauphin County Sheriff’s Office will be represented by one unit, including a police dog.
A State Police captain and trooper will introduce the community to the workings of Pennsylvania State Police Tactical Mounted Unit, in which troopers on horses perform police duties.
One unit will represent Lower Swatara Twp. Police, who are a familiar sight in Middletown because the departments support each other through mutual aid agreements.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 July 2016 14:50
A meeting will be held sometime in August between Dauphin County, Middletown and Lower Swatara Township regarding a possible regional police effort involving the two municipalities.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 July 2016 14:41
Written by Eric Wise
The land just south of the Route 283 eastbound ramp along North Union Street is not suitable for any type of residential use, an attorney told Lower Swatara Township’s zoning hearing board July 14 during the first day of what promises to be a lengthy hearing.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 July 2016 15:35
Written by Eric Wise
The owners of Hop Yard, a restaurant that soon will open in the Westporte Center in Middletown, want people to enjoy eating the restaurant’s food where everything is made from scratch.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 July 2016 14:56