Smoke clearing at Whistle Stop?
Ephrata Mayor Ralph Mowen is determined to see things change at Whistle Stop Plaza.
And, he has been using his own elbow grease to help make it happen.
At Monday night’s meeting of Ephrata Borough Council, Mowen expressed a degree of frustration that more progress toward adopting new rules for the Whistle Stop had not been made. Yet, the good news is that those new rules could be finalized as soon as August.
“I had hoped that the rules for (Whistle Stop) would be park rules plus a few and would be ready,” Mowen told council members. “It appears that will have to be put off until August.”
Borough officials had been reviewing the rules of conduct posted at the borough’s public parks in hopes that similar rules could simply be reposted for Whistle Stop. But as Borough Manager Bob Thompson pointed out, adopting new rules might take a bit more work.
“The rules of the park as codified are not accurate as they need to be modified to deal with loitering,” explained Thompson, who confirmed that nothing official could be completed until at least August.
There has been a growing chorus of concerns over the constant throng of young people who regularly hang in that area. The concern is not that the location has become the hangout of choice so much as the behavior that comes with that crowd and the negative impact it is having on downtown merchants, their customers and local residents trying to pass through the area.
Well-known local business leader Don Sherman appeared at the May 5 meeting of council to share his concerns and urge council to take action to make improvements.
“The language is foul to say the least,” said Sherman at the time. “There is massive rudeness and pervasiveness.”
But it is not just the language that has residents concerned. Reported drug sales, smoking, intimidating behavior and not yielding the right away add to a mix which has drivers afraid to even park on the adjacent parking area. In fact, so massive is the smoking going on in the area that thousands of cigarette butts littering the area has been a residual reminder.
Mowen has done far more than talk about the issue. He goes to Whistle Stop Plaza several times a week to personally help pick up cigarette butts.
“I’m there 1-2 times a week and (kids) are now helping me to pick up the trash,” Mowen told council. “Several of them are skaters anxious for the new skate park to open so they can move out there.”
Part of what Mowen hopes to do is designate the majority of the plaza a smoke-free zone with one area set aside where smoking could take place.
“I’m really hoping that getting this posted as a non-smoking area with a designated area for smoking might go a long way at getting rid of the 5,000 cigarette butts,” added Mowen. “We need to keep that moving to get that posted.”
Council member Anthony Kilkuskie questioned solicitor James McManus on the possibility of simply making the whole area a smoke free zone. From his legal viewpoint, McManus said the borough had designated all parks smoke-free zones and as such has some flexibility on the matter with the plaza.
But regardless of what the final rules state about smoking, council member Victor Richard was skeptical about actually enforcing a non-smoking zone.
“Unless we can enforce no smoking, I’m not sure what we can do about smoking in the area,” said Richard. “It’s a tough issue.”
Mowen and council member Bob Good have taken an active role engaging with the youth in hopes of working with them to find some common ground and a positive solution to what has been a very difficult and often intimidating problem.
Those efforts are beginning to pay off.
Council President Dale Hertzog pointed out that things do seem to be improving.
“I would argue that some of the things already put into place to mitigate the problem are beginning to take effect,” said Hertzog. “The flowers and things beginning to grow up in the pergola all work together to create a positive atmosphere.”
Mowen agreed. He shared how the efforts to build a relationship with the youth has started to change the social dynamics, recounting a recent encounter to make his point.
“One young man began to get mouthy,” said Mowen, “and some of the other young people jumped him and said, ‘This guy is trying to make things better so we have a place to hang out.’ They jumped on him.”
The goal is to have draft rules in front of council in August.
For additional information on Ephrata Borough, visit ephrataboro.org.
Gary P. Klinger is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @gpklinger.