New town, familiar challenge: Downtown improvement vet takes on Ephrata
Ephrata is a community steeped in history, but that's only one aspect of the community. It also has a downtown area along with a number of activities including the state's largest street fair, a tradition that hits the century mark this year.
Added to this mix is now Kelly Withum, an executive with a passion for promoting downtown economic and community development.
A veteran of downtown improvement programs, she previously served as executive director of Lebanon’s Business Improvement District; executive director of Venture Lititz, a nonprofit organization to support economic vitality in Lititz; and executive director of Lancaster’s Downtown Investment District. She took up the reins of a new position at Ephrata’s Economic Development Organization in April.
Withum hit the ground running and has begun to identify immediate needs of the Ephrata organization, which formed at the start of 2018. The needs, she said, encompass not just the downtown but extend to the whole community. They include introducing herself to the community and reviewing plans and studies for economic revitalization — some of which date to the 1990s.
“I’ll be looking for common threads that we address as we create a strategic plan for the organization,” she explained.
Withum also plans to take a look at the community’s assets such as the Warwick-to-Ephrata Rail Trail, which spans several municipalities, and the historic Ephrata Cloister, a landmark whose architecture she described as “amazing”.
“We’ll be looking at not just filling the store fronts, but also putting more feet on the ground and building jobs. Traditional downtowns as we know them are challenged on several levels — retail as we know it is dead, but there are also new opportunities with the challenges. Some of the online retailers are creating storefronts so you can go there and place an order,” she said, “We’re changing from a service economy to an experience economy — people want action and the opportunity to talk with the ‘maker’ or someone who can tell them about a product such as a spice. It’s one of the reasons that brew pubs are popular — you walk away with a product and a story.”
And it’s not just Withum’s presence in Ephrata that’s new — the Economic Development Organization, or EDO, was launched at the beginning of the year. Its chair, Bob Harter, said the 501(c)(3) organization was created by merging three existing organizations — Downtown Ephrata Inc., Ephrata Alliance and Ephrata Economic Development Corp. He said a fourth business advocacy group, the Ephrata Chamber of Commerce, was considering becoming a part of the EDO, but decided to remain independent and rebrand itself as Northern Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce.
Harter said a merger of the organizations had been in the planning stages for nearly 18 months. “They were doing some similar things, but in different ways. The idea of the merger was to have everyone pulling together by creating three committees. Each focuses on a different area — community events, business development and physical development,” he explained.
Penn Ketchum, co-owner of The New Main, the former Ephrata Main Theatre, said as a business owner of about a year in the borough, he hopes the EDO will provide a forum for dialogue between businesses and opportunities for businesses to work together.
“There are a lot of good things happening in Ephrata and a lot to be proud of,” he said. “As a business owner, it’s important to talk with other businesses about what we’re doing all day — there are a lot of great stories out there, and we can all learn from one another.”
The owner of Black Forest Brewery LLC, an Ephrata brewpub, Harter also credits the borough for providing additional support, including leasing offices in Whistle Stop Plaza at 16 E. Main St. to the organization with no rent or utility charges. The borough also agreed to provide funding for the executive director, an administrative assistant and marketing.
“Not a lot of boroughs put this much into economic development.” Harter said, “Whistle Stop Plaza is a perfect location, and we’ll also staff the visitors’ center there.”
Added Withum: “There is an energy and synergy here. Combining the three organizations is a smart and efficient move. It also makes sense when you look at volunteers. Ephrata has a strong volunteer base, but you have to be careful not to burn out volunteers by tapping them for every project.”
She pointed out that while older adults may be viewed as the bulk of any volunteer base, younger adults also play a role. “Younger adults volunteer differently. They want shorter, more finite projects. Moving forward, we need to keep that in mind. It’s important to involve young adults. They are the leaders of the future,” she said.