Akron OK’s MCC’s request to expand guest houses’ use

By on January 9, 2013

By: JAMES MCGINNIS Review Correspondent, Staff Writer

Akron officials agreed to allow the Mennonite Central Committee to expand the use of several guest houses located on its campus off 12th Street.

Officially known as the Welcoming Place, the compound consists of four guest homes built in 2001 to accommodate individuals from around the world who traveled to the campus to study Anabaptist faith or culture.

Mennonite Central Committee spokeswoman Tina Mast Burnett noted that each guest house is named after a continent or region of the world and has simple furnishings — no television sets or personal computers.

"This was designed with an international flavor to reflect the MCC’s reach around the world," she explained. "People come here to learn about the MCC, and the flavor of the campus helps facilitate that learning."

However, Burnett also noted that the number of individuals and groups using the guest houses has dropped in recent years due to the poor economy and increased security concerns over international traveling. As a result, she said that the MCC would like to allow organizations and individuals not directly affiliated with the Mennonites or other Anabaptist sects to rent the facility.

Dwight Yoder, an attorney representing the MCC, announced at a special use hearing convened by the council Dec. 8, that the MCC would only rent the facilities to organizations and individuals "that share its goals and principles."

"They are not asking that the facility be used for any organization that asks to rent it," he explained.

Burnett listed other churches, "charitable mission" organizations; the Ephrata hospital administration and school districts as groups that would be permitted to use the facilities. She said that drug and alcohol rehabilitation organizations would not be permitted to rent it out.

Burnett also pointed out that signs in the guest houses explicitly state that drugs, alcohol and tobacco products are prohibited on the premises, and that this policy is also listed in materials given to group leaders..

She added that traffic is not expected to be a concern since most of the guests would travel by bus or some other type of mass transit, not automobile, and that parking facilities on the campus are adequate to accommodate their plans.

Councilman John Taylor said that he did not doubt that the MCC would be cautious over the groups they would allow to use the guest homes, but also voiced concern that some groups may not fully disclose their intentions. "There are groups who say that they conform to your guidelines, but in practice they don’t," he told Burnett.

Burnett responded by saying they would be diligent over who they allow to use the facilities.

June Hershberger, one of approximately 25 borough residents who attended the standing-room only hearing, said she trusted that the MCC would carefully screen the groups that they allowed to use their facilities. She also noted that many international guests who have stayed at the Welcoming Place have taught at the Diamond Street Early Childhood Center, where Hershberger is Director.

"As a member of the community, I value the fact that MCC has hired 65 local residents, and they have brought the world to us," Hershberger said. "DIamond Street children have benefited from having several international teachers over the years and they have participated in programs to help needy children around the world."

The council unanimously voted to approve the MCC’s plans to expand use of the Welcoming Place.

The council also approved plans to purchase a new gazebo for Colonial Park.

The wooden gazebo would be similar to the one in the borough’s Loyd Roland Park. It is being constructed by Amish Gazebos and is expected to cost about $7,000. The council agreed to make a down payment of $2,000 at the meeting.

Mayor John McBeth said that the gazebo will be erected in the park early next year.

"We expect to install this in early spring," he said. "All we have to do is prepare the site."

Councilman Taylor added that playground equipment is also currently being installed in the park, and that the borough is working with Ephrata Township to develop a Joint Agreement for Phase I of the Warwick-Ephrata Rail Trail, which will form the park’s northern boundary.

The council also approved the final draft of the 2013 budget. The budget includes $1,424,260 in revenues and expenditures, which is 0.1 percent higher than last year. Tax rates remain the same.

Officials also announced plans to upgrade the lighting in all borough facilities to make it more efficient. This is estimated to cost $11,000. More AKRON, page A6

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