Most residents missed a rare opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with key city officials about the future direction of Allentown Tuesday evening.
The city has more than 118,000 residents, but only 18 people showed up for a 90-minute “open house” in the cafeteria of Central Elementary School along Turner Street near the center of town.
“It’s still 18 more opinions we received,” said Shannon Calluori, operations manager in the city’s community & economic development department. “And it doesn’t stop here.”
It was the third and possibly final program to gather community input on priorities as part of the city’s effort to create a community development strategy. The long-range goal is to improve the quality of life and economic vitality of Allentown for its residents.
The fact that the air conditioning was shut off inside the school at 829 W. Turner St. could not have been what kept participation down, because people would not have found out about that until they walked in.
As one administrator noted, summer may just be a tough time to get people to go to a meeting.
But this meeting was almost like a game, with participants walking around the room and using six colored dots to rank their priorities for the city at five different stations.
Based on those dots, Allentown most needs to do more to address abandoned and run down properties. It also must find ways to offer more employment opportunities, more after-school programs for children and more shelters for the homeless.
People attending were given different colored strips of dot stickers. The color did not signify the significance of the priorities, but only where they live. If they live in east Allentown, they got red dots. South Allentown residents got blue dots, west Allentown residents got yellow and downtown residents got green. (The city doesn’t have much in the way of a recognized north side.)
The idea was for them to place their dots on what they think should be the city’s top priorities, on diagrams outlining various categories of community development.
And city staffers were posted at each station to discuss issues and write down any additional suggestions people had on large sheets of paper.
Some people also put dots next to written comments. For example, a suggestion for a skateboard park got two dots.
“You can put all your dots on one thing,” said Vicky Kistler, director of the city’s health bureau. “They’re your dots.”
A walk around the stations shortly before 8 p.m. showed the priorities:
Clean and attractive properties and neighborhoods: Abandoned and run-down properties had nine dots, building fronts had three and streetscapes had one. A written priority was for more community policing.
Housing: Homeless shelters had six dots, affordable housing had five, rental units had four and assistance for homebuyers had three.
Written suggestions included “crackdown on slumlords,” which had two dots, and downtown housing for college students, which had one. Another written suggestion was that the city needs more emergency housing for families with kids
Youth: After-school programs had seven dots, recreation programs had four and summer programs had three. Written comments showed a need for after-school programs to increase their capacities so more children can participate.
Healthy living, recreation, arts and culture: Arts and cultural programs got four dots and nutrition programs got two.
Business support and employment: Employment opportunities got seven dots, employment training and financing for businesses got five each, support for small business got four. Written comments showed a need for better public transportation and job re-entry training.
The city’s community & economic development department already is looking how Allentown can strengthen the way it addresses all those issues, explained Calluori, but the meeting was held because “we want new ideas. We also want to know what we can be doing better to make Allentown a better place to live and work.”
City officials staffing the stations included Michael Hefele, city planning director; Alan Salinger, chief planner; Dave Paulus, director of building standards & safety; Heidi Baer, grants coordination manager; Mark Hartney, community planner; Kistler; Todd Collins, business development manager, and Duane Tolson, business development liaison.
“We wanted to engage people in discussion with city staff who are working on these programs daily,” explained Calluori. She noted the format allowed for more in-depth conversations than are possible at other public meetings.
Mayor Ed Pawlowski also was in the school for most of the 90 minutes, as was Allentown City Councilman Joe Davis.
State Rep. (and former councilman) Michael Schlossberg also attended, as did Sara Hailstone, the city’s community & economic development director.
Some public forums involve everyone sitting in an auditorium and people going to microphones to offer suggestions. But Calluori said that limits the number of people who can speak and how long they can speak. And Pawlowski said a lot of folks won’t stand up in such a forum because they are shy about speaking in front of a room full of people.
The mayor said Tuesday’s approach also gave everyone an opportunity to be heard, rather than just a few people dominating the conversation.
The first “open house” was done in early June for Allen High School students and 200 participated, said Callouri. The second was at the America on Wheels Museum in mid-June and about 75 people attended.
She said addressing abandoned and rundown properties was the top priority to come out of the session at America on Wheels.
The program in Central Elementary started at 6:30 p.m. Before 8 p.m., officials staffing various stations around the room realized they were pretty much just looking at each other and began taking down their easels.
“We can do more of these,” said Calluori. “We’ve not scheduled any but we’re not closing the door on doing them. It is important for us to get the public’s input.”
Information gathered at the three public sessions will be reviewed by a new community development advisory board being created by the mayor.
That board will use the results to help finalize the city’s community development strategy. It also will work on how to implement specific goals, including how they will be funded.
That board will consist of 15 to 20 people, both city residents and business operators, said Calluori. She said it will meet for the first time in August and that information about priorities for community development will be posted on the city’s website by autumn.co
But she said implementing priorities will take time, adding it will be done over the next several years.
Calluori said the advisory board being created by the mayor will be representative of the community and that board will continue to provide input to the community & economic development department for a couple of years.
Pawlowski said that advisory board may decide to hold more public meetings, but they may focus on specific priority issues raised at these initial sessions.
The city is encouraging anyone who missed Tuesday’s program to e-mail their comments and suggestions to email@example.com.