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Borough Council skeptical of housing plans for Southgate

April 10, 2007|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Elm Street might conjure up an idyllic image of small-town life, and a state program by that name is designed to bring that picture closer to reality in Pennsylvania's aging neighborhoods.

Downtown Chambersburg Inc. President Paul Cullinane on Monday reviewed an Elm Street plan for the neighborhoods bordering the downtown, which could result in hiring an Elm Street manager and grants to improve facades and streetscapes and renovate or remove dilapidated buildings. One aspect of the plan, a proposal for housing in part of the Southgate Mall, was greeted with skepticism.

The Elm Street area forms a J around the downtown core with the Franklin County Housing Authority and Southgate Mall to the south and residential neighborhoods along the east. Within that area, 67 percent of residents are renters, according to the plan.

It is also home to two-thirds of borough residents who live below the poverty line and a quarter of its school-aged children, the plan stated. Of the 951 primary structures in the neighborhood, half are in need of minor rehabilitation and 8 percent need major rehabilitation.

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The community organization Building Our Pride in Chambersburg (BOPIC) would form the nucleus of an Elm Street Board, Cullinane said.

"That's why we're encouraging rent-to-own programs," BOPIC President Jack Jones told the council. "You'll take pride in your home and you'll take pride in your neighborhood."

The possible redevelopment of a portion of Southgate Mall property, where many of the storefronts are vacant, into affordable housing prompted skepticism from Council President William McLaughlin.

McLaughlin was critical of Paran Management, the Cleveland, Ohio, company that owns the shopping center. He called the mall a "wasteland."

The company has offered plans in the past with "absolutely no commitment and no follow-through," he said.

Cullinane said he also questioned Paran's commitment, but representatives have consistently attended Elm Street planning sessions. Paran has five firms developing proposals for the project, he said.

The part of the mall that could become town houses includes the former County Market to the south, north through a parking area to West Washington Street. It is bordered by Water Street on the west and the rail-trail on the east.

"I won't hold my breath," McLaughlin said.

Once the five-year plan is approved by the borough, Cullinane said it would go to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. The borough, with Downtown Chambersburg Inc. acting as its agent, could then apply for grants to pay for the first three years - up to $50,000 a year for a manager and $250,000 a year for program implementation, he said.

"It could be as simple as facade improvements for 50 homes in the Elm Street area," Cullinane said of getting the program under way. "We want people in the neighborhood to feel things are happening."

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