Merchants boil over loitering issue
Why allow loiterers to cast a blight on the $1 million-plus decorative polish of Ephrata’s downtown welcome center plaza?
That question was once again bluntly delivered to borough officials by downtown merchants during a Monday afternoon community services committee meeting.
Don Sherman warned that failing to address intimidating loiterers at the restored train station-visitors center will jeopardize future growth and chase existing businesses.
“I’ve opened up a number of stores throughout the county,” said Sherman, owner of Royer Pharmacy. “And if I were looking for a new site and saw the problem that existed here earlier this spring, I can guarantee you this town would be off my list, big time.”
Committee members Robert Good, Tim Barr, Tom Reinhold; Mayor Ralph Mowen, and Police Chief William Harvey sympathized with the concerned merchants.
However, their response — that loitering is not illegal and not much can be done about it — drew criticism among the 18-member audience at the 4:30 p.m. meeting.
“There’s no such thing as loitering anymore thanks to our illustrious Supreme Court,” Mowen said. “Back in the 60s…we could do something about it. It doesn’t exist anymore.”
Officials dismissed a suggestion to apply a curfew or post “unenforceable” no-loitering signs but Chief Harvey said the borough is shopping for an “expandable” surveillance system to replace current cameras that are “poor at best.”
Business owners Jack and Stephanie Harley say an incident at Friday’s Merchants Association “Family Fun Night” on the plaza put them over the edge.
The incident occurred when Mr. Harley called police after determining he couldn’t secure the doors on the Chamber of Commerce building because someone had tampered with the locks, he said.
“As the officer took our statement, a young man walked from back of the building where he was loitering with his friends and got right up in the cop’s face,” Mr. Harley said.
“He said: ‘Your car is parked illegally, I’m going to give you a ticket.’ This young man is interrupting a police officer during the conduct of his business and we were offended by that.”
Mr. Harley praised the officer’s professionalism and said he understood the threat of a lawsuit for an overreaction. But it’s frustrating that police know “there is absolutely nothing he could do in this situation.”
“If we continue to allow that uncivil behavior in our town you’re not going to have a town left,” he said. “You’re not going to have taxpayers left and you certainly will not have businesses left.”
Stephanie Harley said “there’s always a solution” when the rights of others are lost by those who intimidate, litter, loiter and vandalize.
“People are puking in front of the visitor’s center…hello, this is the building that welcomes everyone to Ephrata,” said Mrs. Harley, vice president of the Ephrata Merchants Association.
“This is the plaza that faces Main Street. Come on what about disorderly conduct?” she asked.
Councilman Reinhold agreed.
“I understand there’s nothing we can do about loitering but I don’t understand why we can’t do anything about disorderly conduct or bad behavior,” he said. “It’s one thing where those kids glare at you — it’s kind of menacing — but the minute their mouth opens to me, that’s crossing the line.”
Good, committee chairman, said the process in dealing with “the Constitutionality of today” is complicated and that any solution “first and foremost must be legal.”
“Do I agree with it? Certainly not,” Good said. “…I want the police to do their job. The police want to do their job. But what is their job and what can they legally do and what can they not legally do?”
A person asked why officers don’t simply take “uncivil” kids home to their parents in a police cruiser.
“That’s unlawful restraint,” said Chief Harvey.
Sherman admitted the number of loiterers in the plaza appears to have decreased since the spring.
He also noted the borough has the right philosophy in mind with initiatives to construct a new skate park, creating the mayor’s 30-organization volunteer group to work with at-risk youth, and offering free events at the former Main Street bowling alley
But ultimately the loitering problem if not addressed “will stifle development in town…and chase existing merchants out,” he said.
Patrick Burns is a staff writer and editor for The Ephrata Review. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 721-4455