The Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authority celebrated the impending demolition of a dilapidated property in Mechanicsburg on Saturday, an event that was more than two years in the making.
The abandoned house at 203 E. Main St. was condemned in 2009 and further damaged by a fire ruled as arson in July 2015. It remained as “a constant thorn in the side of you name it — the neighborhood, downtown, Mechanicsburg Borough, and certainly the authority,” said Rebecca Yearick, the authority’s communications manager.
Representatives of several organizations that partnered with the authority in the demolition effort spoke at Saturday’s ceremony that was held in the parking lot of Frankenberger Place, an office building adjacent to the 203 E. Main St. site.
“It’s a very happy day we’ve been looking at for a long, long time, and we wanted a community photo,” Yearick said in advance of the ceremony. “Lots of people said, why not do it in the spring, but the building will be gone by then. This was something that was truly a community project.”
The American Abatement Group of New Bloomfield was contracted for $126,400 for building asbestos removal and demolition and has been given a notice to proceed by the authority. The overall process is expected to take several months, however, because the firm must tear down the building by hand. Machinery is prohibited for the job, Yearick said, because it could damage the historic Frankenberger Tavern owned by the Mechanicsburg Museum Association and other nearby buildings.
After the building is gone, the firm will complete the job by grading and seeding the empty site.
The authority plans to deed the cleared lot to the museum association. A design committee for the museum is engaged with plans for transforming the lot into what will be known as the Frankenberger Gardens. The project is expected to be completed in 2018.
A community effort
Since the fire two and a half years ago, Yearick said she constantly has worried about the decrepit structure at 203 E. Main St. totally collapsing and damaging the 1801 tavern next door.
Before the authority could proceed to demolish the 203 E. Main St. structure, however, it first needed to acquire ownership of the property. For this, the authority needed to raise more than just the building’s purchase price. It also was required to have demolition funds on hand at the time of sale.
The Downtown Mechanicsburg Partnership already had initiated fundraising for a future project at 203 E. Main St. in late 2014, six months before the arson, Yearick said. The partnership provided more than $18,000 toward the project, including the cost of advance research and engineering required to secure federal funding.
The authority, working with the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners and Mechanicsburg Borough, approved $50,000 in federal Community Block Grant funds for acquisition, demolition and legal expenses.
In early 2017, the Mechanicsburg Club contributed $35,000, followed by Fry Communications owners Henry and Betty Fry contributing $20,000. The museum authority donated $12,000 on top of individual contributions that totaled $12,000.
On July 10, 2017, the authority finally purchased the 203 E. Main St. site at a Cumberland County judicial sale, exactly two years after the house was set on fire. The actual building price was $20,000, but the authority also was required to show proof of demolition funds.
A banner posted on the building during Saturday’s commemoration said it all: “We did it.”
A design committee is working under the auspices of the museum association to create Frankenberger Gardens in the soon-to-be vacant lot at 203 E. Main St. The community gathering place is being designed to resemble a side yard as the Frankeberger Tavern’s original owner would have maintained it in the 1800s.
“It’s going to be a very primitive site, as you would expect for a side yard of the tavern,” Yearick said. “It’s the only green space we have on all of Main Street.”
The design committee plans to split the property into three sections. The front section closest to East Main Street will be “an inviting green space” that welcomes visitors, said committee member Gary Weber, who serves on Mechanicsburg Borough Council.
The property’s middle section will look similar to the 1800s, Weber said, with vegetable gardens, animal pens, and chicken coops. Animals would be kept onsite only for special occasions, such as petting zoos.“There will be a feel of what it would have been like in the 1800s,” Weber said.
Plans for the garden’s rear section include an education center with an open area for speakers and public demonstrations. The gardens will be equipped with limited electric access and water for plants.
So far, the project has received funds from a Cumberland County Land Partnership Grant, the Mechanicsburg Area Foundation, Mechanicsburg American Legion Post #109, the Mechanicsburg Club, and a seed money allocation from the borough, Yearick said.
Weber said that an “official” fundraising campaign for the gardens will start early next year.