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All four one: Ephrata’s plan seeks to unify economic groups
Ephrata Borough hurdled a difficult obstacle Monday in its two-year pursuit to merge four economic development organizations.
Three of the organizations — Downtown Ephrata Incorporated (DEI), the Ephrata Chamber of Commerce, and the Ephrata Alliance — have drafted official resolutions in support of the merger.
The board of the Ephrata Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) has agreed to the merger but meets only quarterly and has not had the opportunity yet to draft a resolution.
“At this point there are still many unknowns,” said Ephrata Borough Manager Robert Thompson. “This is simply a milestone of the entire journey to develop our economic development program. There is still a lot of work to be done.”
All Ephrata council members were invited to Monday’s Activities Committee meeting to discuss a report from Urban Research & Development Corp., which council hired in May 2016 to organize the multitude of financial, legal and administrative issues involved in the merger.
The merger would be the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, said Martin Gilchrist, president of URDC, whose consulting contract is for $52,800.
“It’s so positive and demonstrates how people put aside personal fiefdoms and egos to work together,” said Rebecca Gallagher, who is associated with all four groups.
Susan Rowe, a former DEI board member and borough council president, credited the project to Thompson.
A resolution, which Thompson forwarded to Ephrata Solicitor John R. McManus for legal approval, spells out a 10-year, unspecified financial commitment to ensure the success of the new economic development group.
While municipal funding is a vital component of the plan — described as the “carrot” to bring all sides together — Thompson said actual financing would legally depend on available funds that must be used in accordance with Pennsylvania and Ephrata municipal codes.
Still, the URDC report suggests the borough provide $150,000 per year.
Potential funding options suggested by Thompson are a long-term lease of 33 acres of land to the borough’s electric company for solar field development and the sale of borough properties.
“Economic development is not unlike a marriage; you have to keep on working at it,” he said.
Thompson said the merger is vital to the future vitality of Ephrata, pointing out the commonality of empty storefronts in many older downtown regions.
“We can’t afford empty storefronts,” he said. “Just because they’re all full now you have to look at when the leases expire and know when is the next time we have to get tenants in here.”
The new organization would have a full-time staff person who among other things would compile and maintain an inventory of available business space, searchable square-footage and costs.
Gallagher, owner of the Historic Smithton Inn bed and breakfast and co-president of Ephrata Alliance along with Sue Burkholder, owner of Salon Art-Tiff, noted that the merger would maintain the distinct advantages each organization provides while limiting the redundancies and overlap among members and leadership.
“I have to go to four different meetings and that goes for many of us,” she said. “We don’t want the functionality of any of the groups to go away,” she said. “We just want to make them more efficient at a lower cost.”
For example, each group now maintains four different websites and four different people doing social media “which could be consolidated into one,” she said.
The report breaks down each group’s funding sources and how those funds are used.
For instance, the Ephrata Chamber has an operating budget of $75,000 to $80,000 derived from membership dues, community events and grants and donations. EEDC has a $400,000 operating budget from proceeds on the sale of Hampton Hotel.
Its purpose is to support and develop its members through administrative, marketing and services, often through organizing community events.
Rowe complimented the work of URDC’s principals Howard Lieberman and Gilchrist, tasked with unifying organizations with long and proud legacies “for the betterment of Ephrata Borough.”
“While it may appear to be taking longer than some would hope, as was mentioned at the meeting, we are undertaking a project that has not been done previously,” Rowe noted.
“Steps toward the future, although they may be small steps, are positive,” she said. “I cannot commend Marty and Howard enough for their patience, experience and thoughtfulness as they spend time with representatives from each of the four organizations to learn what is the best plan moving forward.”
Andrea Glass, executive director of the Ephrata Area Chamber, said her group is positive about the plan and is “willing to work with the borough to help efforts forward.”
Nevertheless, the Chamber, which is celebrating its 95th anniversary, is a regional organization where 65 percent of its 300 members are located outside Ephrata, she noted.
A merger would not end the Chamber’s autonomous activities and any agreement must “offer value and benefits and not take anything away from our members,” Glass said.
Therefore, while the Chamber has signed a resolution agreeing to be part of the merged group, Glass said the Chamber is committed to being part of the “conversation” and “it’s only the first phase of a long process.”
“We’ve been at the table since the beginning and we will be a team player and collaborate with the other players for the behalf of Ephrata,” she said.
The report suggested that the new organization could be headquartered at the Chamber facilities at Whistle Stop Plaza.
Each group was asked to compile a list of concerns, and each requested URDC research to define an acceptable plan for the transfer of and proper handling of individual assets, and an explanation of the legal mechanics of the merger.
Council is expected to follow the Activities Committee’s recommendation and adopt its own resolution — subject to a form acceptable to the borough solicitor — at the April 10 council meeting.
Patrick Burns is social media editor and 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.