The Columbia Historic Market House Trust got a new lease on life Monday night when Borough Council voted unanimously in favor of a motion to support the trust moving forward to apply for grants for design and construction for Phase II of the Market House revitalization study of 2005. Any grant funding will be used to rehabilitate the interior of the market, as called for in the borough's strategic plan and the 2005 study. Over 50 people filled the borough council chamber, many of whom were there to show support for the trust.
Trust Chairman Cleon Berntheizel asked for council's approval to move forward with the plan. He stated that he is not asking for money, just a "nod,” in order to recruit people to come up with the numbers needed to design and submit grant requests. Berntheizel said the goal is to raise money through public and private grants. He said the trust wants to start the grant process immediately, because September 12th is the deadline to apply for a grant that was suggested to the trust by PA State Representative Stan Saylor. Berntheizel stated that he intends to begin the capital campaign within the next few months. He said he hopes the trust can raise money from public and private sources without asking council. He said some significant donors have already pledged to help fund the project.
Market consultant Ken Kauffman stated that he was approached by the trust about returning the market to its original intended purpose and to help members better understand how to run a market. Kauffman explained that the proposed plan for infrastructure would include space requirements and electrical upgrades, as well as many facilities necessary to operate the market (for example, hand sinks). (Currently, there is one common sink in the market.) Once the plan is in place the trust can work with contractors on cost.
He said the second use of the plan would be aimed at creating a “marketing piece.” He said the plan would show “a high level of credibility” to potential merchants. He also said that the first impression has to be “fantastic,” not half done. He stated his opposition to a food court/fast food area, referring to it as “parasitic” use. He said people will drive to a destination if there is fresh produce.
Councillor Mary Barninger asked what the timeline would be for design and construction. Kauffman replied that it would be a year. Councillor Barry Ford asked what will happen between now and a year from now. “That's up to the trust to decide,” Kauffman replied.
Councillor Kelly Murphy asked if the building will remain open during construction. “We never had that discussion yet,” Berntheizel replied, adding that he didn't know if part of the building could remain open. Berntheizel also said he didn't know how many stands will be leaving or that TJ's was leaving, until that evening's meeting. [Note: Near the start of the meeting, Duval Dollar of TJ's told council he will be leaving the market on November 1. “It's very sad, but we can't take anymore,” he said, adding that he will still be in town.]
Berntheizel stated that he wants to see a complete restoration to a green farmers' market and said that the trust is excited about the new possibilities. He said that the market house has been called “the jewel” of downtown revitalization.
Berntheizel also stated that the inside of the market is inadequate. He said it is too hot in the summer and the produce can't stay fresh. He also said he has heard that older people are afraid to walk on the bricks but added, "There is no discussion about tearing up bricks.” “Our produce stand suffers immensely,” he said, because the produce can't be kept fresh. According to Berntheizel, the current obstacle is the lack of staple products to take home. He said customers should be able to get what they need, as in a grocery store.
Councillor Ford said he believes in the trust concept but is concerned that the borough has no control. “The way the trust body is set up, we don't have control over anything,” he said. “I really don't see us helping except as a letter of support.” He said he wants to do what is best for the citizens of Columbia. He stated several options for the market house:
Do nothing and let the market operate as status quo.
Go with the trust plan and hope there are grants.
Find out what can be done that's currently not being done. Close the market.
Close it for a month and reorganize.
Put the market manager in charge of the trust.
Sell the market.
He concluded by reminding the trust that they need to be “more open.”
Councillor Jim Smith urged the trust to “formulate a plan and stick to it.”
Berntheizel remarked that he has never volunteered in a position where the negativity is so great. He says they are “smacked down” by the press and social media who are getting only half the story. He said, “We are not secretive. We are open. We want to be as transparent as can be.”
Mayor Leo Lutz suggested that the trust advertise meeting dates and have the meetings open to the public. He said that there has to be a flow of information. He added that if there had been, "a lot of things we're hearing now wouldn't be.” He also suggested that the council chamber could be used for trust meetings.
Councillor Barninger acknowledged that it was difficult to put aside all the “dirty laundry” that was aired over the last three years, but that the history should be separated from the trust's request. “Think about what this place could be,” she said. Barninger then made a motion to support the trust with the grant application. Councillor Smith seconded the motion. After council voted unanimously in favor of the motion, many in attendance erupted in applause.