“This is not a police problem, it is a community problem.”
That was the foundation established by a group of about 30 community leaders from civic groups, secular organizations, police, and the business district who gathered Tuesday to address the growing problem of loitering in downtown Ephrata.
“Our focus is to address an increase in quality-of-life complaints that seem to center around kids gathering at the recently developed train station known as the Whistlestop Plaza,” said Ephrata Mayor Ralph E. Mowen.
The plaza is often occupied by up to 30 to 40 people, said Ephrata Police Officer Paul Moore.
Mowen told the invited group at Pioneer Fire Company that problems among those hanging out at the plaza include drug dealing, drug use, fights, littering, excessive smoking, bad language, harassment, vandalism, skateboarding violations, and generally disruptive behavior.
Mowen, who co-chaired the meeting with Joe Hyatt, pastor of New Beginnings in Brethren Christ Church, introduced David Spotts, the chief of police of Mechanicsburg and an expert on building relationships with at-risk kids.
“It’s amazing how similar Ephrata is to Mechanicsburg, right down to the refurbished railroad station where the kids hang out,” Spotts said.
Spotts solicited feedback from every person attending and asked for a collaborative effort.
“What we’re looking for is good compromise for a solution that may not be the piece of the pie you’re looking for &tstr; you may not get everything you’re looking for &tstr; but one that can work for the community as a whole,” he said.
Councilman Robert Good underscored the meeting’s positive focus in identifying problems and posing possible solutions without excessive focus on symptoms.
“We need to let the kids in this community know they are important to us and that they are also viable members of this community,” said Good. “Hopefully if we do that &tstr; and we do it as a community… it will help more kids to take some kind of ownership in this community.”
Police Officer Brian Dell Isola noted there are essentially three distinctly different groups that gather at the Whistlestop. One is the skateboard group who are the most visually unpopular to residents because “they smoke and curse a lot,” he said.
But there is optimism about moving that group, he said.
“Those kids have said they’ll go to the new skate park when it opens (see related A1 story) leaving the only the other two groups,” he said.
A second group hanging at the plaza is the criminal drug element, there for a very specific reason, he said.
That reason would be the third “lost” group, who are the criminal element’s customers, he said.
“The third group are not hiding, they’re the ones who have the crazy piercings that says ‘here I am’ &tstr; they have no affiliation. That’s their place,” Dell Isola said.
If you can reach that group, “the criminal element will leave because they have no customers.”
The discussion moved quickly during the 90-minute meeting and focused on what resources can be used to best connect and engage the kids.
Suggestions included revising midnight basketball at the Ephrata Rec Center, offering free events at the former Main Street bowling alley, reactivating the “TRACK” program and its associated resources index.
Formed in 1996, TRACK, which stands for Teens Responding to Adult Caring and Kindness, successfully encouraged kids to stay in school, helped them into summer school, found them jobs and involved them in community projects.
Carol Stark, a community activist who personally engages with at-risk and already troubled kids, said the solution for at-risk youth is to “make kids feel important.”
To do that you must start with baby steps such as acquiring documents and get GEDs.
“The kids have no IDs, no available birth certificate, no driver licenses, all the simple things required to get on the path to get a job,” Stark said.
The meeting ended with the appointment of a four-member panel of Good, Stark, Jim Summers of the Ephrata Rec Center, David Knowles of Friday Night Skate. The task of the panel is craft an action plan drawing on the resources presented.
It established a mailing list of names, phone numbers, and email addresses “to connect the dots as a uniformed group not just scattered as we are,” Stark said.
One of the first actions the committee will take is to reach out to the offices of the Ephrata Area School District and magisterial court which were not represented at Tuesday’s meeting, Stark said.
Patrick Burns is a staff writer for The Ephrata Review. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 721-4455