Thursday evening’s brainstorm session among local residents and Mount Union leaders honed in on two ideas for a historic borough-owned building and will continue to develop those ideas for presentation to borough council.
From an expansive list of options — which included video game lounge, business incubator and youth activity center among others — the group picked a coffee shop as the top option for the former General Refractories office building at Market and Greene streets.
Running a close second is a folk school proposal by local ceramics artist Christopher Drobnock and fellow residents George Drobnock and Nick Brown who are working together on a plan and exploring several locations within the borough.
Borough manager Adam Miller facilitated the discussion following a tour of the building which, at borough council’s Jan. 2 meeting, became the focus of a two-month quest to secure a future for the building that benefits both the borough and the community at large. The last tenant, the Mount Union Area Historical Society, operated an Industrial Museum in the space for a number of years.
Council gave Miller a two-month period to explore possibilities for the building’s future. The top two options, in full detail, will be presented to council at the March 6 meeting.
Miller said the session proved Mount Union is full of ideas.
“We already have an organic community and right now we’re just trying to put rubber on the road,” Miller said. “We can use this as a launching point to inspire other people.”
Miller noted that even the ideas that didn’t make the final cut are worth holding onto for when opportunities arises; case in point, Jeremy Crouse suggested the space as a location for an outdoor gear shop catering to all the hikers, cyclists and boaters who enjoy the trails and waterways that surround Mount Union.
Group members felt the building’s location in the middle of town, away from those natural attractions, might be a hard hurdle to clear but Miller noted another time and another opportunity could prove to be the better fit.
The group’s initial expansive list was narrowed to four options. The top picks emerged after a vote; both Drobnocks and Brown abstained from the vote.
The final four vote included professional office space as an option as well as a medical marijuana dispensary. Group members noted that of the final four, the dispensary might be the most lucrative but also the option with most potential hurdles in terms of regulations and public perception.
Miller noted he would like to see the property used in a way that all residents, regardless of age, can enjoy.
The brick edifice includes a cellar and attic. The main level’s interior includes a vestibule, a large open space, office, restroom and walk-in vault. The property also includes a side yard. There is no handicap access, but Miller pointed out that a side entrance — which leads into a hallway brickyard workers once filed through to collect their paycheck — could easily accommodate a ramp.
Councilman Gary Kuklo, who is also a member of the Mount Union Area Historical Society, said the society’s overhead expenses for water, sewer, electric and heat added up to around $1,000 per year for occasional use.
On a personal note, Kuklo said he would prefer to see the building preserved.
“I want to keep seeing this building. I want the character of the building to remain,” he said.
Mary Trice said regardless of the direction the project goes, she hopes its a positive space for the community.
“It should be something to bring up morale,” she said. Trice said she would also like to see some job creation.
Miller expressed enthusiasm for both top picks. As coffee shops go, he said there are already role models in the local area.
“Standing Stone Coffee Co. (in Huntingdon) is now a landmark used to promote the community and now Jenkies Joint is doing the same thing in Orbisonia,” Miller said. “Is the same opportunity here? Absolutely.”
The folk school ties into local heritage; Chris Drobnock pointed out that Mount Union and nearby communities were once home to various potteries. Plus, the school is envisioned as a public studio with programs for all ages.
Miller said that for him, the ideal situation is a lease agreement between the borough and a partner. He said he also wants to look into the possibility of the borough accepting a percentage of profits as payment so “their profit is the community’s profit.”
The group dispersed with homework to complete before the next meeting, to be announced. The assignment: develop business plans for the two ideas in preparation for eventual presentation to borough council. The Drobnocks and Brown said there is a basic business plan available for the folk school that can be further expanded.
Miller said he has plenty of homework himself and said he will look into zoning, occupancy and other such issues. He said grants are another issue and that the nature the eventual occupant will in part dictate the types of funding opportunities the borough can pursue.
Community input is still welcome. To share thoughts on the top picks or join in the discussion, call the borough at office at 542-4051 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca can be reached at email@example.com.