Coakley's revamp fuels hopes in New Cumberland
Within 36 hours of being newly elected mayor of New Cumberland, Doug Morrow was directing traffic in the 300 block of Bridge Street, the main thoroughfare in the Cumberland County borough.
He wasn’t on the street wearing a bright reflective vest, however.
Wearing jeans and a Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt, he was inside meeting with utility workers, movers and his partners involved in the early stages of redeveloping the former Coakley’s Restaurant and Irish Pub, a longtime borough establishment closed by bankruptcy in 2014.
The mayor-elect is part of a local ownership group, MML Bridge Street LLC, which bought the bank-owned property last week. The group is investing more than $1 million to breathe new life into the property, which dates back to 1896.
Plans call for a brewpub restaurant, retail space for a craft distillery and a handful of other small retail spaces, along with some office space in the rear of the property, which spans multiple parcels along Bridge and Third streets. One of the retailers will be Funtastik, a skateboarding and snowboarding shop.
Borough leaders and downtown business owners say the sale of the large downtown property is a sign of investor confidence in nascent efforts to revitalize the community.
“It will bring the draw back,” said Mark Holjes, a partner at Shugar’s Philly Deli, which sits across the street from the vacant restaurant.
Shugar’s and other retailers downtown, including the Oxford Hall Celtic Shop in the 200 block of Bridge Street, have seen foot traffic fall off by 60 percent to 70 percent since Coakley’s closed three years ago. Sales also took a big hit.
“People never came back,” Holjes said, citing a major dip in evening sales.
Morrow and his partners — Rick Liddell, president of moving company Geo W. Weaver & Son Inc. and Jim Mellon, president of Mellon Certified Restoration — hope their plans will spark other investments in the borough. Morrow is director of business development at Mellon.
“The key to downtown revitalization is this (Coakley’s) property and the theater,” said Morrow, referring to the neighboring West Shore Theatre, which has struggled financially in recent years and has been for sale.
New Cumberland officials hope more investment flows in, too. The borough intends to hire an urban planner in the coming months to craft a revitalization plan to help attract more businesses and foot traffic to the community of about 7,000 residents.
A few smaller downtown spaces have filled up recently and another, an indoor rock climbing facility, is on the way.
Old pub rehab
The new owners closed on the Coakley’s deal on Nov. 8, the day after the municipal election. They were in the restaurant the morning of Nov. 9 to start clearing out what was left behind, which was a lot.
The walls still carried memorabilia from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh sports teams, including signed photos from former professional athletes with midstate roots, such as pro football player Jon Ritchie. A 2014 St. Paddy’s Day T-shirt was still hanging in the bar.
“They just shut the doors and walked out,” Morrow said.
Last week, workers for the new owners were emptying out old beer bottles and draining tap lines. The scent of expired beer permeated the air.
Cobwebs covered old condiment bottles sitting on pub tables lit by Guinness- and Michelob Ultra-themed lights.
A story about the pub’s 25th anniversary in 2001 hung nearby, bearing the optimistic forecast that Coakley’s would carry on for another 25 years.
Coakley’s missed the 50-year mark. The bankruptcy came on the heels of an economic downturn and the loss of other small businesses in New Cumberland.
A bankruptcy court issued an order to close the restaurant in July 2014. The former owner, Tim Hogg, then posted a letter to patrons on the front door.
“We would like to thank everybody for their patronage over the years and we hope you root for us to return to business soon,” he wrote.
His attempts to revive Coakley’s failed and the property has sat vacant ever since.
Hogg had purchased the restaurant in 2008 from Richard and Sue Coakley. They had purchased it in 1976 when it was called the New Cumberland Olde Towne Tavern. Rechristened Coakley’s, it was one of the first Irish pubs to open in the Harrisburg area.
It also was one of the last local Irish establishments when it closed.
Morrow, who was formerly mayor of Camp Hill, believes the next generation of businesses on the former Coakley’s site will help carry the banner for New Cumberland well into the future, while creating jobs, boosting tax revenue and raising property values.
He is already waving the flag. As part of his mayoral campaign, Morrow pushed a “buy New Cumberland” initiative to encourage more residents to support borough businesses.
He and his partners have been doing their part. They hired a local real estate professional to market the property, as well as financial and legal professionals who work in New Cumberland to help structure their partnership deal and finance the project.
Morrow said he intends to source as much as he can in the borough to support the redevelopment, which will unfold over the next year.
Councilman Don Kibler applauds the effort of the incoming mayor and his partners. The deal, he said, enhances the credibility of the revitalization effort he is helping to lead.
The effort is aimed at crafting a 20-year community and economic development plan to help New Cumberland remain viable for residents and businesses.
“Coakley’s was always an economic opportunity for the right investor,” Kibler said. “But the whole (revitalization) initiative is about more than filling Coakley’s and the West Shore Theatre.”
It’s also about more than a few blocks of Bridge Street, which connects New Cumberland to neighboring communities on the West Shore, including Lemoyne.
Kibler and Christine Leukus, president of the New Cumberland Olde Towne Association, said the multiyear plan needs to encompass the entire borough, even though the bulk of the shops, restaurants and offices are concentrated within a few blocks downtown.
Leukus believes the borough should consider ordinance changes, including rezoning in certain areas to extend commercial activity.
New Cumberland needs more “destination” shops to keep people in the town longer, she said.
It also needs to attract younger people, said Frank Kelly of Kelly Financial Services Inc. and owner of the Olde Towne Commons retail strip center at 400 Bridge St.
That means adding new businesses that appeal to a younger audience, Kelly said. “We have to reinvent what we have.”
For example, the Cave Indoor Rock Climbing is slated to open at the end of the month in the center.
Kelly also believes some sort of dinner theater could work well for the theater space and complement other borough attractions.
“You have to keep a fresh face on your product all the time,” he said. “I believe business and property owners need to take pride in their buildings.”
One of New Cumberland’s biggest strengths is that it’s close to Harrisburg. It’s also one of the few population centers in a growing county with an established town center with a stable of longtime business owners, like Kelly.
But many parts of the borough are in the floodplain and there are a lot of poorly maintained or blighted properties. That deters some investors.
Downtown business owners said increased codes enforcement to deal with older buildings and absentee landlords needs to be a top priority. The new mayor agrees.
Borough officials also could do more to make downtown parking more accessible for visitors as tenants tend to fill many public spaces, Leukus said. Kelly thinks the borough could take a bigger step with public parking and look into a parking garage or surface lots.
But first, the borough needs to do more to market itself to bring in business, officials said.
“I think everyone is on the same page and they want to see something good,” Leukus said. “New Cumberland is fine, but it could be better.”
Funding the plan
The borough has raised about $25,000 from civic organizations and the community, as well as from its own funds, to support the revitalization initiative. Discussions began a year ago with the help of the Cumberland County Planning Commission and Cumberland Area Economic Development Corp.
The borough’s next step is to hire an urban planning consultant to help create an action plan for the borough. Councilman Don Kibler said a request for proposals from consultants could go out in January with proposals due in February.
He is hoping to hire a consultant by March and have the study begin in April.
But New Cumberland may also need to find more money to cover that work.
Kirk Stoner, planning director for Cumberland County, has been involved in similar community studies in Camp Hill, Wormleysburg and Lemoyne. He said they typically cost $30,000 to $50,000 and could take about three to six months to complete.
What's on tap
With interior demolition now underway at the former Coakley’s site, Doug Morrow said he hopes to have Funtastik in one of the retail spaces by mid-December.
He would like to see the retail distillery shop open by February. It will be a tasting room operated by Dead Lightning Distillery, a new distillery in Lemoyne.
His goal is to have a restaurant operator under contract for the brewpub by the spring. The plan is to operate the brewpub in less than 3,000 square feet of space, smaller than the space Coakley’s had expanded into over the years.
Remaining retail spaces are being marketed by Andy Kohr of Landmark Commercial Realty.
Existing tenants include an art gallery and trophy shop. Both businesses are staying, Morrow said.