Thursday, September 12, 2013

Easton Grants $1M to GEDP to Purchase Weller Building

By Christina Georgiou

Easton City Council voted to grant $1 million to the Greater Easton
Development Partnership to purchase the former Weller Center building.
The space will house a new indoor food market, the Easton Public Market,
similar in style to the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, along with
GEDP, Easton Main Street, Easton Ambassadors, and Easton Farmers'
Market offices.

 Easton City council voted 5-2 Wednesday evening in favor of granting $1 million to the Greater Easton Development Partnership (GEDP) to purchase the Weller Center building, which will house a year-round indoor version of the Easton Farmers' Market, along with offices for GEDP and programs under its supervision, including the Easton Main Street Initiative and the Easton Ambassadors.

Council members Elinor Warner and Roger Ruggles cast the dissenting votes.

Both said they support the creation of the market, but that they were uncomfortable with using public money to finance the purchase of the building by a private entity to house it.

Ruggles said the $1 million, which will be part of $16.5 bond the city will be taking out to finance the construction of the new city hall and transportation center, will cost the city $60,000 per year until the loan is repaid.

"We're really talking about $60,000 per year that we'd be picking up for you," he said. "I understand the preliminary (2014) budget shows a $1 million deficit, and we'd be picking up $60,000 more."

He added, "There's no big incentive to perform well and get (GEDP) off the taxpayer roll (for annual funding needs)."

Mayor Sal Panto, who favored the grant to GEDP, saying the ultimate revenue the new market will bring into the city and having a quality food store in the Downtown to serve residents is worth the investment, noted that the city won't begin paying back the money until the beginning of 2015.

"If the city is on the hook for $60,000, you may see GEDP's contribution from the city drop by that amount," he added.

GEDP currently receives $375,000 in city funding annually.

Warner questioned the need for the city to finance the entire purchase price of the building.

"So, there's no other option?" Warner asked GEDP Executive Director Gretchen Longenbach, who also works as a city employee, heading the Easton Redevelopment Authority. "If we don't give you a million dollars, this doesn't happen? We haven't been presented with any other options. If we give you $250,000, would (the new indoor market) happen?"

"This is the one of three options that seemed the most advantageous," Longenbach said. "The alternative is if it's not supported this evening, we'd have to go back to (the bank) and discuss other options...There's only so many paths we can go down."

"I'd love to have such a market but I don't think we can afford such a market," she said. "I just don't think this should be paid for by the public. It's a private enterprise."

Other council members were less skeptical of the plan, though they admitted there are risks.

"I'm willing to take a chance because it is advantageous to our city," Councilman Jeff Warren said.

Vice-mayor Ken Brown agreed.

"Although there are risk, I go believe it will be supported by our community," he said.

Longenbach said that while GEDP is a non-profit corporation, the commercial nature of the market means 47 percent of the building will be subject to paying property and other local taxes, ultimately providing a return on the city's investment, though no estimate of what amount of annual revenue the building might bring the city was immediately available.

Noting the advantages of the market for the city, including filling a years-vacant building close to the Centre Square, project manager Jared Mast said plans for the indoor market are moving ahead smoothly and he envisions the Easton Public Market to be similar in style to the Reading Terminal Market in Phildelphia.

Two potential anchor vendors, both of who attended Wednesday evening's meeting, include current EFM vendor Nathan Thomas of Breakaway Farms, which intends to run an "old-fashioned butcher shop" in the new market, and a fish market run by Vintage restaurant owner Mike Pichetto.

Thomas, who raises grass-fed beef and other high quality meats, said that he realizes "not everyone can afford $10 a pound ground beef," and he intends to offer some more affordable options at the indoor market.

Easton Farmers Market Manager Megan McBride talks about
the success of the current market and her hopes for the new
indoor market before Easton City Council Wednesday
evening, accompanied by GEDP Executive Director Gretchen
Longenbach and Easton Public Market project manager
Jared Mast.

Mast said too he hopes to ensure the new food market will serve all Easton residents, not just the more well-off, by possibly offering SNAP incentives, "which will make SNAP dollars go further" for those who shop there. The Easton Farmers' Market currently accepts SNAP, but the prices of many of vendors' offerings mean it's still not usually practical for most low-income Easton residents to purchase their food there.

The $1 million grant will cover the entire $900,000 purchase price of the building and the first $100,000 of construction costs to renovate it, city officials have previously said.

EFM manager Megan McBride has said the winter indoor market will be housed in the space beginning in November, and the Easton Public Market is likely to open in early 2014.

Updated at 6:18 a.m.

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