DEI moves forward Downtown group leaving train station and considering office in Sprecher building; planning new visitor’s guide

By on February 22, 2012

By: GARY P. KLINGER Review Correspondent, Staff Writer

Despite a prolonged and painful national economic slump, Downtown Ephrata Incorporated or DEI continues its attempt to adapt to the times and prove beneficial to the downtown business district.

This is quite the feat considering ever-increasing challenges groups like DEI, throughout the state, face as grant funds and other sources of operating funds have become stretched or dried up altogether. Yet, DEI tries to commit itself to acting as a role model for other organizations.

One such example was a recent decision for DEI to move from its location in the historic Train Station along Main Street. For the time being, the DEI board has decided to operate without a permanent physical address.

DEI’s Executive Director Marsha DiBonaventuro recently discussed the move.

“Like so many other businesses, opportunities to maintain revenues were dwindling, while costs, of course, were moving in the opposite direction,” said DiBonaventuro. “For any business, there are three main ways to positively impact the bottom line: identify ways to increase revenues, cut costs, and improve efficiencies.”

Since a large part of staff time is spent communicating, researching, and designing, a lap top and a cell phone are the tools needed and can be used virtually anywhere. Another large chunk of time involves meetings. Meeting with downtown businesses usually occur conveniently at the site of the business or host. For committee meetings or meetings with developers and other interested parties, they access the community conference room at the train station, which has always been available to the business community, free of charge, for such uses.

“DEI will be able to continue operations without encumbrance” added DiBonaventuro. “The lack of a physical presence should not have an impact on the implementation of our strategies or programming. A virtual office for this type of work has been gaining in popularity for some time. In fact, this model of office operation allows for an improved efficiency for operations that require a degree of independence and autonomy. We are seeing that here.”

While the move to a virtual office may be the answer in the short term, DiBonaventuro made it clear the intention is for DEI’s departure from a physical location to be temporary.

Thanks to a grant from the Lancaster County Community Foundation, DEI is evaluating the feasibility of developing a contemporary shared office facility, ideally on the second floor of the Sprecher building.

“We know this is an aggressive project, primarily because of the physical challenges” commented DiBonaventuro. “The space is in need of significant code and infrastructure upgrades. However, we recognize the emotional attachment this community has to this particular building. At 4,600 square feet, its productive development could have a significant impact in the daytime economics of downtown.”

DEI was a major player in supporting the current owner in the rehab of the first floor and facades. Still, it proved to be a Herculean effort, and that was with much of the infrastructure already in place. The costs of rehabbing the second floor have discouraged any previously interested for-profit business from moving forward.

“So, if not DEI, then who?” posited DiBonaventuro.

The grant will also cover the development of a business plan, which DiBonaventuro says DEI absolutely urges every new business venture to have. If the study and plan prove that this project is feasible, just not at this location, DEI will look to other sites to establish the contemporary shared office project. DiBonaventuro pointed out that this business model has been gaining momentum, in the region and across the country, and they feel confident that the project itself will prove viable.

And it is in this new facility where DEI intends to re-establish a physical presence.

“DEI invites, and urges, interested readers to go on the DEI Home Page (downtownephrata.org), click on the instructions located in the left margin, and answer a few questions regarding the project,” added DiBonaventuro. “These answers will help us further define the amenities and other services of this shared office space and give us a spring board to identify potential users.”

DiBonaventuro added that it is DEI’s hope that larger area businesses will see the value in the success of such a project in Northern Lancaster County, both as an economic driver for downtown and as a feeder for potential employees or service providers. With that vision, it is also their hope that the business leadership in this area will consider participating (via in-kind services or contributions) in the project’s progress.

Anticipating the positive results of the business plan, DEI is partnering with the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design in developing a brand for the project. Students will be designing a logo, as well as some marketing materials, which should be completed by early March.

At its recently held annual meeting, DEI presented the community with a report on its efforts during 2011, while looking forward to plans for 2012.

In the annual report, DEI said that for the organization to continue to deliver vital economic development services and successful programs, it would need to grow current successful programs, charge for certain services and eliminate those services that were underutilized. It would also need to develop other systems that generate revenue and obtain longer-term financial partners.

Groups like the Anne Sweigart Charitable Trust, the Weidman Foundation, the Brossman Foundation, Lancaster County Community Foundation and PNC Bank have been approached by DEI’s leadership or have received applications for funding to support DEI’s programming and operations needs in 2012.

Throughout the past year, the downtown has seen the advent of more new businesses than those shuttered. New businesses included Absolutely Live, Cuts for Mutts, Ultimate Men’s Thrift Shop, Northern Lights Café and CAP/ Tabor. In addition, Madelyn’s Closet re-opened under new ownership and Chesnet PC expanded its business located on the second floor of the Royer Building.

Lifehouse Books went totally on-line, while Fancy Shmancy closed when the owners retired. And The Art of Expression Dance Studio also closed.

Ironically, as funding to support the operations of DEI have become more challenging due to these economic times, downtown businesses are coming to rely increasingly on the technical assistance the group provides. DEI continues to offer one-on-one business counseling, group training opportunities and acts as a resource to other sources, including independent research.

Local businesses continue to contact DEI for help with very specific needs, such as financing options, local regulations, help with marketing, advertising and customer service and business planning. Businesses also look to DEI for assistance with securing meeting and convention spaces, investment opportunities, tenant recruitment and planning for business growth.

Of course, the most popular reason for contacting DEI continues to be to answer the age old question, “What’s going on with…..?”

In 2011, DEI expended its grant funds, but continued to offer counsel for façade-related issues, such as proper art deco signage and complimentary building age-appropriate colors. Façade matching grants were awarded to Cuts for Mutts and Absolutely Live for new signage while the Farmers Day Association and 9 West Main Street received funds for awnings and other façade upgrades.

Last year was also another banner time for a popular DEI-sponsored program of placing planters throughout the downtown district. Just a few short years ago, the program was started with only 10 planters. Now up to 20 planters, DEI’s Design Committee volunteers experiments with a seasonal second planning. Planter sponsors for 2011 included: Ephrata National Bank; Royer Pharmacy; Pike and Grant; Liberty Tax Service; H&R Block; Parkhill Jewelry; Douple Agency; The Ephrata Review, Windstream Comm.; Ephrata Community Hospital; Tree Top Inn Bed and Breakfast; Cindy Mellinger; Ramor Properties; Paul L. Gravenor Home for Funerals; MTS Travel; Micheners Engraving; Mayor Ralph Mowen; Performance Personnel; DEI and the Hampton Inn & Suites. Ephrata Area Rehabilitation Services helped with watering and maintenance; Micheners Engraving supplied planter plaques; and Espenshade’s Nursery provided the plant arrangements — all which helped the 2011 planter program successfully to beautify the downtown district.

Throughout the year, DEI consistently works to find ways to keep downtown Ephrata “on the radar” of the media, tourists and area residents. It has been active in Lancaster County Downtown Consortium projects. The consortium is made up of five Main Street communities: Ephrata, Lititz, Manheim, Mount Joy and Elizabethtown, and has been meeting about once a month for over five years. The group focuses on cooperative downtown marketing and programming.

Within the past year, so active has DEI been in helping to develop the downtown business district that the group has called for a re-evaluation of its original Main Street boundaries. The new boundary lines incorporate The Artworks to the north, the Cloister to the west, the Hampton Inn & Suites to the east and the VFW / Pioneer firehouse/ borough hall to the south. All businesses in this expanded area will be surveyed and included on the DEI website.

Looking to 2012, DEI will be taking a focused approach to planned projects. These planned projects include the new Cocalico Valley Visitor’s Guide and a new DEI / Community Garden, planned for the area behind the Fun-nest Toy Store Ever!.

“The Cocalico Valley Visitor’s Guide is an exciting project because we are partnering with New Holland, Adamstown, and Denver to create an area visitor’s guide that we have aptly identified as the Cocalico Valley… the heart of history in Northern Lancaster County,” explained DiBonaventuro. “Guides will be distributed to the state’s regional welcome centers as well as various tourist destinations.”

Several years ago, DEI established a base line of data through a downtown business survey. DEI is currently repeating this survey. The data comparison will identify trends, help develop future programming, and provide the borough, and others, useful aggregate information about the growth — and challenges — of this large commercial area.

For additional information on Ephrata’s downtown business district and on DEI, visit the group’s website at downtownephrata.org. Gary P. Klinger welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions via e-mail at klingerglobal@gmail.com. More DEI, page A16

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