Lehigh Valley

Emmaus rebuilding a bridge to its main street program

EMMAUS, Pa. - Emmaus borough council began rebuilding a bridge with the business-promoting Emmaus Main Street Partners Monday night -- but not without some angry words exchanged between council members about economic development issues.

Council member Nathan Brown proposed that borough manager Shane Pepe or a member of council resume attending all monthly meetings of Main Street Partners - something that routinely was done until the beginning of last year.

Brown indicated his three-member community relations and development committee supported that proposal.

Pepe indicated he has no problem again attending the Main Street meetings.

Pepe said he attended the 7:30 a.m. monthly meetings until a year ago and added previous borough managers had been attending the organization's meetings for two decades. "I went to all their monthly meetings with a representative of council," said Pepe.

Council president Lee Ann Gilbert proposed sending Pepe to the meetings on a quarterly basis.

"I cannot go and I know most of us sitting in this room cannot go at 7:30 in the morning," said Gilbert.

Brown agreed to that change in his proposal, as long as another member of council would be permitted to attend meetings Pepe does not attend.

"If you want to attend, I have no problem with that," said Gilbert.

Council member Roy Anders, who is on Brown's committee, said he also might be able to attend some Main Street Partners monthly meetings.

He said having someone from council attend the meetings might help reduce "hard feelings."

If going to the meetings produces a positive result, "the whole borough will benefit," said Anders.

Brent Labenberg was the only member of council to vote against the motion, saying a motion was not needed to send a borough representative to the meetings.

Gilbert said council's general administration committee had directed Pepe to no longer attend those meetings. "That's why we're handling it by a motion," she said adding it was her decision to do so.

Pepe later said council's general administrative committee directed him to stop going to the monthly meetings early in 2013 because those council members felt the meetings "were not progressive enough" for him to spend his time attending them.

"I always left their meetings at 8:30 whether they were finished or not," Pepe told council.

"This motion shows the Main Street Partners that we are committed to them," said Brown.

"To say we don't support them, I totally disagree," said Labenberg after the 6-1 vote. "Maybe we haven't had people going to their meetings, but that doesn't mean we don't support them."

Labenberg said council always supported the organization's events in Emmaus, with the help of the borough's public works department. He also said facade grants always have been supported by council, as was the Main Street Gallery project even though "it was not presented to us accurately."

"They could do a better job of communicating with us too," said Labenberg.

Pepe said Main Street Partners does communicate information to Brown, who currently is council's appointed representative to that organization.

Labenberg said everyone on council should be getting that information, including yearly reports with financial information. "That's on us," said Pepe. "Not to throw you under the bus, Mr. Brown, I apologize."

Partnership 'not there'

Brown reported that he had attended a recent meeting of Emmaus Main Street Partners.

"They felt the partnership was not there between council and the Main Street Partners," Brown told council.

"We had what I would call a heart-to-heart discussion," Brown told his colleagues, adding it was done to air out differences and grievances between council and the organization.

Brown admitted even he has wavered in his support for Main Street Partners, but explained it is on the verge of a positive "directional and regenerational shift" because of its affiliation with the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.

He said Main Street Partners hopes to raise $11,150 through events this year and get out of debt.

"I feel confident that I can support Main Street Partners again," said Brown.

Council member Brian Holtzhafer went after Brown like a prosecuting attorney after Brown made statements crediting Main Street Partners with improvements in town.

"They've done many great things," said Brown. "They took a building that was assessed at $500,000 and turned it into $1.2 million. That's great for our tax base."

He was referring to the revitalization of the former Main Street Gallery at 187-191 Main St. He said that project involved no financial contribution from Emmaus taxpayers.

When pressed by Holtzhafer about that property being reassessed for $1.2 million, Brown said "that is factual."

But Pepe said it is not factual, because the county has not yet reassessed the property. "That's what you told me," said Brown.

"We have to get this relationship straightened out," declared Holtzhafer. "We've got to be speaking truth here."

Holtzhafer said "the $1.2 million is complete speculation at this point. If the county comes back and says the building's worth $600,000 that's what it's worth."

Pepe said the state has estimated the new value of the building at $1.2 million.

Brown said 11 small businesses also will benefit from a façade grant through Main Street Partners. "The assessment value will increase and more tax revenue will come in," he predicted.

But Holtzhafer stressed facade improvements don't necessarily lead to reassessments that increases the value of buildings, which would increase tax revenues to the borough.

Pepe said even if the assessment doesn't increase, facade improvements do increase the resale value of a property.

Seeking middle ground, council member Wesley Barrett said: "All the projects that have occurred do in the end have a net positive for the borough of Emmaus."

Anders said Main Street Partners are doing good things for the community and Emmaus needs a strong Main Street program.

After the meeting, Brown said relations between council and Main Street Partners began to deteriorate when council reduced, then eliminated, funding to the program. He said council last provided funding -- $5,000 -- in 2012.

He said in prior years, council's support to the program was up as high as $20,000. He said other municipalities with Main Street programs give them much more every year.

Brown said having a Main Street program also benefits Emmaus when it applies for state and federal grants.

LERTA debate

During his committee report, Brown also raised an issue Emmaus council has been considering for a couple of years: proceeding with a LERTA project in the borough.

"This is something that needs to happen," said Brown. "Maybe not for 2014, but for 2015. This is something we need."

LERTA stands for Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance. The state program is designed to redevelop properties in areas classified as under-utilized, blighted and/or brown fields.

The program allows those who develop eligible properties to avoid paying full real estate taxes for up to 10 years. "It's a tax abatement program," explained Brown. "They incrementally pay taxes on their reassessed value."

"I don't support it," said Labenberg. "I think it's going to be an administrative boondoggle."

"Sometimes we get so short-sighted," said Brown.

"You mean me?" asked Labenberg.

"I too tend to get short-sighted," said Brown. "But we've got to look at the bigger picture. The one thing we're accused of as this council is that we have no vision. It frustrates the heck out of me that we just go year-to-year."

Brown said his goal is to continue economic development for Emmaus and LERTA is one tool to accomplish that.

He told Labenberg: "If you still want a blighted building, then I just don't understand why you're so narrow-minded."

"I have a voice," said Labenberg. He said he doesn't want to see Brown do a lot of work on LERTA and then it gets voted down 4-3. Brown suggested an immediate vote.

Gilbert ended the argument between the two council members.

Holtzhafer told Brown he would be more willing to support a specific quality project than designating a section of Emmaus as eligible for LERTA and then saying: "Hey, if somebody wants to develop this, we'll help you out. I don't support a blind LERTA."

Brown said finding such specific projects "is our goal this year."

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