PUNXSUTAWNEY — Monday, Punxsutawney Borough Council voted to table a vote overriding Mayor Jim Wehrle’s veto of the change in Ordinance 1120.
The change would permit apartments in first-floor commercial establishments in the town center commercial district.
Council member Eric Story said a change to Ordinance 1120 has been
brought up three times, and there were some comments made at the last meeting that people who would live in first-floor apartments would sit on the sidewalk in lawn chairs, which wouldn’t be attractive downtown.
“An old tenant of mine is living above Stello’s old accounting building, and Saturday, I came through town, and there he was sitting on the steps in downtown,” even though there are park benches located throughout downtown at least one in every block, he said.
“What’s the difference between sitting on a park bench or a lawn chair sitting out there?” Story said.
He said council is also worried about someone in a first-floor apartment walking pets on the sidewalk all the time.
“A family that lives in a second-floor apartment may walk their pet downtown along with the others who don’t live in downtown and walk their pets,” Story said.
Another problem is beer cans being left throughout downtown by first-floor apartment dwellers.
“We have bars in town, and some of their patrons may leave beer cans around town,” Story said.
“If the borough is going to start restricting property owners, downtown or wherever, maybe the borough should pay their property tax for them,” he said. “If we’re going to dictate to them what they can do with their property, then the borough should pay their property taxes.”
“If the property owner can’t get a business to rent its space, they have to have a way to recoup their losses,” Story said. “If they are renting the storefront to a family, they’ll be receiving a lot less rent than they would from a business. If the property owners could fill their storefronts, we wouldn’t be looking at this situation.”
“I respect the opinions of the planning commission and the Chamber of Commerce,” Wehrle said. “I don’t want to cause them any trouble for the people on those boards.”
Council member Michele Lorenzo said she can agree with some of things that have been brought up.
“If you visit other downtowns, the first floor is always retail and commercial businesses,” she said. “Area residents are not going to support the downtown if it is filled with first-floor apartments, whether there are animals living on the first floor or not. People won’t support your downtown if there aren’t any retail businesses, and it has first-floor apartments. I don’t think this is the right situation for any downtown.”
Punxsutawney Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marlene Lellock said she delivered 12 letters to Wehrle toward the end of last week from business and property owners asking him not to veto that ordinance.
“I guess it wasn’t enough to sway the mayor to change his mind about the veto,” she said.
“In my opinion and the Chamber’s, the issues aren’t so much what you’re talking about; it is more the fact as you look down the road, there’s a possibility that we will no longer have a downtown in 10 to 12 years,” Lellock said. “A town center is what a community is known by. Think about when you travel and go through a town: Don’t you always look at the downtown area and shop, or sometimes just keep driving?”
Lellock said the town center can be the face of the community.
“It’s what a whole community is judged by,” and it’s important to preserve that town center, she said.
Lellock said the Chamber recruits people to open stores in downtown.
“If they are all taken up by residences, we won’t have an opportunity to do so,” she said. “This has been a tough business climate. I’ve been here 13 years, and I used to receive calls from potential businesses checking us out. Not anymore.”
PRIDE has floundered because there is little interest to make it go, Lellock added.
PRIDE representative Shirley Sharp said it has been tough to bring businesses into town because landlords have difficulty providing incentives to get them here.
Wehrle said he did find the letters from downtown business people, with 14 letters against the veto and two in favor of it.
Lellock asked if Wehrle would withdraw his veto after discovering the other letters. Wehrle said he respects other opinions, but he would not withdraw his veto of the ordinance.
Council member Toby Santik said he would be more impressed if people would come to the meeting and express their opinions in person instead of writing letters.
“I’d like to see people come to a meeting and talk with us to see how we can give them some kind of relief,” Santik said.