A call for change Disrespectful youth at Whistle Stop Plaza ‘unacceptable’
GARY P. KLINGER Review Correspondent
, Staff Writer
Concerns have been raised regarding the atmosphere at Whistle Stop Plaza in downtown Ephrata.
At issue: bad behavior by young people in their teens and early 20s congregating in the area between the Ephrata Re-Uzit Shop and the former train station.
Two local business owners came out for Monday night’s Ephrata Borough Council meeting to voice their concerns. Neither knew the other was planning to attend.
They detailed large groups of young people sitting and standing on the picnic tables, smoking, bikes and skateboards, profane language, even suggesting that drug deals are taking place. The claim is that these groups clog the area and refuse to yield to other pedestrians trying to make their way through.
Joshua Myers of The Art of Recycle was first up. He detailed what he has personally witnessed along with what has been reported to him by others. He stressed the importance of considering a wide range of ways to address the issue in order to achieve a positive outcome.
Melissa Palermo-Spero owns The Fun-est Toy Store Ever! Like Myers, she expressed concern that the bad behavior is scaring local residents and chasing away business.
"I have seen and videotaped a grave display of disrespect and intimidation from a very large group of teens and early 20 some-things," she said. "When I write it down, it does not sound so intolerable. However, their actions and attitudes create a sense of discomfort and danger for anyone walking by. I have been in communication with other business leaders and they echo the same sentiment. I do not want my children or family in the midst of this, and I certainly do not want my customers to have to navigate the minefield of spit, trash and violence to shop with me."
Palermo-Spero went on to detail physical violence at the plaza, causing police to be called in order to keep the peace.
"In the end, one person was carrying a knife," she added. "The average citizen is frightened to walk through that area. It’s deplorable and unacceptable and I’m happy borough council is finally taking a stand against it. Too much time, effort and money has been poured into that space to have it once again become unusable."
The concerns raised did not fall on deaf ears, nor was this something new to borough officials. Lt. Chris McKim of the Ephrata Borough Police Department attended the meeting.
"We are aware of the situation and have been in consult with the borough solicitor, James McManus," said McKim. "Officers have been down there to speak with merchants. We know that that is like running a gauntlet. It is very congested and when people are parking there for a long period there will be bad behavior, even borderline criminal behavior."
McKim added that removing the park benches is a first step toward trying to address the concerns by making it harder and less comfortable for large groups to camp out for long periods of time. In addition, he said police will continue to build an awareness and a presence in the area to combat the situation.
Borough Manager Bob Thompson echoed McKim’s thoughts on addressing the situation. He added that the picnic tables belong to the borough had been removed.
"Our concern is that if we remove the tables then bring them back for community events we will be doing nothing but shuffling tables, but this is a start," said Thompson.
Council President Dale Hertzog indicated things would change in the very near future.
"We will take this to heart," he said. "We understand this is an issue and will attack this from several different angles. You should see ramped-up efforts in the near future."
During round table comments later on in session, council member Bob Good spoke at length on his concerns for Whistle Stop Plaza. He described a visit he made earlier in the day to the area to see the situation first-hand.
"I was greeted by a chorus of obscene language and cigarette butts from approximately 10 to 15 young people ‘hanging out’ there," noted Good. "I felt like I was walking through a gauntlet."
Good said he had visited several local businesses, all of whom indicated the growing problem is having an adverse impact on the downtown business district. He said he heard reports of the obscene language by large gatherings that would block the thoroughfare. In addition, he heard reports of skateboarding on picnic tables, benches, even the plaza walls and the caboose. There have been reports of bicycles on top of the picnic tables and very graphic and obscene graffiti pained on the tables.
"Women, women with young children and elderly people, plus business owners, feel intimidated and feel possible retribution, both physical and with property damage," added Good."
Drug usage, distribution and sales have also been reported, as has possible gang activity.
"A lot of people have put time and effort and money to try to revitalize our downtown," said Good. "Unacceptable behavior is just that: unacceptable. This type of activity should not be tolerated when it infringes on the rights of others, scares the public or intimidates the public, stopping them from enjoying all the benefits of the downtown business district, not to mention the impact on the merchants which happen to be located in close proximity."
Good urged the matter to be taken up by both the Public Safety and Community Services committees. It is hoped that the Chamber of Commerce, the Merchants Association, DEI, the local ministerium and the police department will all be part of the solution.
"I do not want my children or family in the midst of this, and I certainly do not want my customers to have to navigate the minefield of spit, trash and violence to shop with me."
downtown business owner
More PLAZA PROBLEMS, page A6