Artworks development discussed by councilLaw firm hired for ‘Fair Share’ suit; cost from first round was $135K

By on September 7, 2011

By: GARY P. KLINGER Review Correspondent, Staff Writer

First it was a shoe factory, then a complex showcasing the artistic talents of various local artists and even the home of a high-end furniture store.

But now emerge plans for a new affordable 55-plus housing complex to breathe new life into two of the buildings making up the former Artworks at Doneckers, between North Church and North State streets in Ephrata.

Current owner, Bill Donecker along with Ned Howe, Director of Development and New Business for Enterprise Homes, Inc., were on hand Tuesday night to present Ephrata Borough Council with an introduction to the company and a brief overview of the plans for the complex.

According to plans, the office complex which fronts on State Street, and the four-story factory, would be joined to form one building. The former Fleet-Air office space would then be converted to community space, amenities for the complex and possibly a community room, which could be used as public meeting space. Forty senior apartments would then occupy the four-story factory complex.

According to Howe, his firm has been working with Donecker on the proposed project for the past six months.

“There is very much about this community which makes such a project a real positive,” said Howe, citing the walk-ability of the location to local services such as drug stores and shops, with mass transit available to Lancaster and a peaceful setting within the community.

Howe explained that at this point the project is strictly in the schematic stage of the process of becoming a reality. Key to the project ever moving to the next level is the company being able to secure various tax credits, without which, the project could not go forward.

But that process of obtaining the necessary tax credits, which could make this economically feasible, poses quite the challenge. Howe explained that last year there were approximately 120 projects in competition for 30 awards.

“It is very competitive,” said Howe. “The main criteria for earning awarded tax credits include the design of the project, the market into which the project would fit, community involvement and the overall execution of the proposed project.”

According to Howe, Enterprise Homes, Inc. is well situated to successfully launch such a project. While this would be the firm’s first foray into a Pennsylvania market, the company has developed a number of communities, predominantly in Maryland. The firm, however is able to explore projects throughout the mid-Atlantic states from New Jersey to the Carolina.

Enterprise was founded in 1982 by well-known developer Jim Rouse. Described as an urban visionary, Rouse was responsible for developing Harbor Place at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as well as overseeing the redevelopment of Columbia, Maryland, among some of his many successful projects.

Developments created by Enterprise now house over 1,340 residents in 16 different communities, with three new communities now in the works. Howe cited data which indicated that 80 percent of those living in Enterprise communities had come from within a three-mile radius of the complex and did not tend to draw from a great distance. Their facilities are designed for seniors with a median income of between $10,000 and $32,000 per year.

Howe showed council a number of existing communities to underscore the fact that the Enterprise formula is not to create cookie-cutter projects but rather to create projects which fit the community quiet well — both architecturally as well as culturally. Howe showed pictures of facilities which included such amenities as exercise rooms, libraries, computer rooms, walking paths, bocce ball courses, cyber café’s and billiards.

Not only would this project be the company’s first project in Pennsylvania, it would also be the first one which would utilize the repurposing and re-use of an historic structure.

The presentation by Donecker and Howe was more than simply informational. The duo were seeking a letter of support from the borough council which they could use to firm-up efforts to obtain a tax credit award for funding.

“We are not going to do this if the community is not on board,” said Howe. “Towns and boroughs across Pennsylvania are in competition for these funds and these types of projects.”

In questioning Howe on the project, council members reflected caution, while at the same time remaining open to the possibilities presented.

Council member Susan Rowe questioned Howe on whether or not the property itself would be considered tax-exempt, saying that she was not sure the citizens of Ephrata would be well-served or even open to another sizable block of property being off the tax rolls. In the end, Howe’s complex answer was at best inconclusive.

Howe and Rowe also disagreed with one another on the veracity of the figures presented by Howe. Citing Ephrata borough figures, Rowe indicated that the borough is 2 percent below the state average of people 62 and older within borough limits, which raised questions about Howe’s figures stating approximately 80 percent of the residents come from a three-mile radius. In the end, Howe conceded that his firm had not gotten a full market study completed for the project.

Council member Bob Good sought a clear answer with regard to the company’s interest in the project. Howe indicated that Enterprise would be the buyer of the property, but then proceeded to indicate that different divisions within the parent company would handle various aspects of the project, from development of the site, to property management.

That is when it was disclosed that the group which would be brought in to handle the day-to-day management of the facilities was a faith-based organization run by a Presbyterian group.

“My understanding is that you are looking for a letter of support from this borough council and community to give you extra ‘umph’ for the purpose of funding and the tax credit,” Good asked of Howe. “Is there any other organization in Ephrata which is privy to this conversation, specifically the EEDC.”

Howe said he would talk to anyone, which led Good to again ask the question of whether or not EEDC had been made aware of the proposed project.

“I was on (EEDC’s) board and we’ve been talking about the various properties I’d like to develop for nearly three years,” noted Donecker.

Good then questioned the fact that in order to apply for the tax credits, Enterprise would need to file by Oct. 12. While Howe said his firm could apply for the credits without a letter of support from borough council, his company was adamant in having community buy-in before pressing on with the project.

“Now it becomes a rush for an Oct. 12 deadline,” said Good. “We know nothing about this. Our responsibility is for what’s good for this community. How do we do this with no discussion or information on which to base a positive decision? Yet your intent is to come here and ask for our endorsement which would benefit you. I’m just perplexed that if talks have been going on for a three- year time frame and now you come to us. We don’t know anything about you, your organization, any successes or failures. It would be unwise to make such a decision without the facts before us.”

Howe explained that such a letter could be as simple as stating that the project would fit within zoning requirements and would fit well within the short- and long-term strategic plan for the community.

“You’ve had a letter of intent for about a month,” questioned Council member Dale Hertzog. “Will you be ready to submit in one month?”

Howe indicated that while this did present a tight window, his firm was adept in completing such applications and felt confident the could be successful. He added, however, that it sometimes takes between one and three years to successfully obtain such credits.

Borough Manager Bob Thompson weighed in on the project. He stated that it would be adding additional rental units at a time when the borough is already above the suggested unit count. But he added that considering the reuse and repurposing of an historic building, it might balance the impact on the number of rental units within the community.

The project was referred back to the Development Activities Committee as well as the zoning hearing board for further review.

For more information on Enterprise Homes, visit enterprisehomes.com.

In other borough business, chairman of the Budget and Finance committee Russell Shirker, asked that despite Tuesday’s meeting being a working session, that a vote be taken to hire the law firm of Post and Schell to represent the borough, Mayor Ralph Mowen, former Human Resources Manager Jeff Lamp, and interim borough manager Bob Thompson in the Fair Share lawsuit. The measure passed unanimously.

Shirker explained that eight members of the local union had brought their second lawsuit against the union as well as the borough, Mayor Mowen, Lamp and Thompson, saying that more than their fair share of contributions were taken from their paychecks. He approximated the cost to defend the first lawsuit was approximately $135,000 but said it was impossible to say what this second lawsuit might cost the borough.

“It’s one of the unknowns at this time,” said Shirker. “I wish it were settled because the costs are just unknown. This group did the same thing last year.”

For more information on Ephrata Borough, visit ephrataboro.org.

Gary P. Klinger welcomes comments and questions via e-mail at gpklinger@yahoo.com. More BOROUGH, page A16

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