A two-hour, "economic development summit" was staged Friday between Lehighton business owners and members of Lehighton Borough Council.
It was arranged by council member George Kogut. Beside Kogut, in attendance were council President Grant Hunsicker, Vice President Scott Rehrig, borough manager Nicole Beckett, borough secretary Brenda Koons, and about 20 business owners.
The business owners expressed concerns that parking meters might be a deterrent for shoppers, that commercial electric rates might be unfair for businesses, that some poorly maintained buildings along the Lehighton bypass give a bad impression of the town in general, and that speeding on the bypass not only sends potential customers racing through town but causes safety issues.
A wide range of businesses were represented at the session, from lawyers to realtors to restaurant owners.
"We're looking constantly for your feedback," Kogut told the gathering. "This isn't once and done," adding that future gatherings are planned.
"What can we do to bring more businesses into town?" he asked.
Chris West, manager of Pyramid Performance Center on Ochre Street, said his firm chose to locate in Lehighton because there was a building available with adequate parking.
"We're proud to be part of Lehighton," West said.
Kogut said West's facilities area is an asset to the borough, especially since expanding recreational facilities is going to be a priority of the borough. He said plans exist to add basketball courts and lighting to Baer Memorial Park.
"We're trying to build a program," he said. "We're looking around to try to give kids things to do."
Parking meters occupied part of the discussion. The pros and cons of having parking meters in the downtown area have been debated for decades.
While some individuals attending the meeting felt the meters should be taken out, others were in favor of retaining them.
Those opposed to the meters expressed concern that the fine for having a meter expire is $20.
On the other hand, some individuals said without the meters, residents and employees would take the parking spaces which customers should use. It was noted that a call center has located on South First Street and there is concern a lot of parking spaces would be taken by these workers without the meters in place.
One business owner stated, "If a customer gets hit with a parking ticket, they're not coming back."
Another countered, "Without the meters, people will park on First Street and not move their cars."
Rehrig said a survey conducted several years ago in the downtown indicated that although meters are not profitable to the borough, without them, people who live in the downtown area often don't move their cars for long periods.
Woodrow Frey Jr. brought up the subject of high electric rates for businesses. He said he purchased the former Baer Silk Mill in 1995.
"Is there any way the borough could realize any discounts for businesses?" he asked, suggesting that those firms that pay their bill on time might receive such a discount.
The borough has its own Light and Power Department, whereby it purchases electricity wholesale and resells it to borough residents and businesses.
Some business owners indicated this prevents them from shopping for competitive electric rates.
"I keep getting information in the mail to go green," Frey said. "It's not available in the borough. Are there other discounts available?"
Kogut said he has experience in establishing economic development rates for electricity and will look into the matter.
A woman suggested that the borough should look into purchasing some of the eyesore buildings that exist in the downtown, demolishing them, and creating parking.
Rehrig replied that the borough doesn't have the money for such a project.
One man replied, "These slum lords do have assets. Either they should be made to meet code or tear down their facilities."
A woman added that the poorly maintained buildings are most visible from individuals driving along the bypass. She said potential visitors "see the worst side of the town."
A realtor suggested that some rezoning be done for the downtown area. She said presently, if a residential building is sold in the downtown area, it cannot be reconstructed as a residence because of the commercial zoning.
One downtown businessman complained that snow and leaf removal should be more expeditious in the downtown.
Rehrig said the council has been told that residents don't want to hear the noise of snow removal equipment in the middle of the night, when it would be easiest for snow removal to occur.
Hunsicker added that property owners and tenants should put the snow past the curbing so that the borough can remove it.
"I see a lot of the bridging of the gap," said Kogut.
Rehrig asked, "What two things can we on council do right now to improve First Street or Sgt. Stanley Hoffman Boulevard?"
One man responded that possibly the borough could secure matching grants to improve the facades of buildings.
Another suggested removing the commercial electric rates, stating, "We're paying phenomenal money."
"It is budget season," said Beckett. "We're evaluating what we can do."
Kogut interjected, "There are things we probably can do to give relief to utility costs."
"Maybe we can make some kind of rate package," he added.
He assured the gathering, "We'll always look for your feedback," adding that future business summits are planned.
One of the things he suggested as an immediate action was creating a "parking committee" regarding First Street parking.