By Lawrence Wilson
Media Club Reporter
The time: 6:40 on a July evening as warm as good intentions.
The place: The Capital BlueCross Theatre, on the campus of Central Penn College, in the village of Summerdale, East Pennsboro Township.
The personnel: Some Central Penn faculty and the school’s president are in the theater, along with residents of the neighborhood surrounding the campus.
The event: A town hall meeting at which local residents and Central Penn folks can discuss issues pertinent to both.
It has been more than 40 years since Central Penn moved into the area and, as is typical in college towns, from time to time, misperceptions, misunderstandings and the occasional real problem crop up between residents and students, whether the latter are on-campus residents or commuters.
Tonight, Central Penn’s ninth president, Karen M. Scolforo, is hosting this event — the first of its kind on the campus that anyone can remember.
By 6:51, about 40 nonstudent township residents have entered the drama zone and taken their seats.
By 7:02, roughly 60 are catching up with one another.
Before the curtain rises
It is late July in the Lower Susquehanna Valley, so the air is thick, but not tight. Still, no one knows what to expect, even though everyone knows for sure one thing on the minds of the non-Central Penn attendees: “Will our questions be answered?”
Soon, Scolforo opens the meeting with a thorough presentation of the school’s mission and value statements. She then extends an invitation for members of the East Pennsboro community to involve themselves with the school’s Facility Planning Committee, the purpose of which is to serve as a relationship-building connection between the school and the community surrounding it.
No official meeting of the committee and residents has occurred, but the committee members are ready as Scolforo and her administration prepare to move ahead with her plans to continue expanding Central Penn’s academic offerings, physical presence and partnerships.
As part of introductions and relationship-building, a few staff and faculty members presented how their departments contribute to the school.
Chief Public Safety Director Ron Amoriello, Director of Residence Life Megan Peterson, and Central Penn Players Theatre Club Adviser and Theatre Director Janet Bixler were among them.
This being the first such significant gathering people could remember of Central Penn College personnel and residents of the off-campus community, most people expected a level of uneasiness and some pointed questions.
Expectations were met, but calmly, and respectfully.
Voices heard, and listened to
One resident asked whether his son would feel safe when leaving home. His concern mirrored other residents’ concerns about safety on and around the campus. Statistics gathered by school officials and police show the campus is what most observers would describe as extraordinarily safe.
Some community attendees expressed perceptions that Central Penn students have brought a drug problem to the community.
The college has very few drug-related incidents compared to other colleges.
According to Central Penn’s state-required crime report, six drug-law arrests were made on campus in 2014, four in 2013 and two in 2012; none was made off campus. No drug-law arrests were made in 2011.
The report is accessible at http://www.centralpenn.edu/security. 2014 is the most recent year for which a report is available.
Lt. Mark Green, of the East Pennsboro Township Police Department, addressed residents’ safety concerns.
“The drug problem is a national problem and does not just stop at East Pennsboro,” Green said.
Will expansion squeeze anyone?
Another concern presented was Central Penn’s expansion plans.
One long-time township resident said he and others “get nervous” about the school’s expansion plans. There seemed to be some confusion as to what school officials want to do. Some residents questioned why the school wanted to take their property.
Scolforo reassured attendees that Central Penn has no intention of making any land grabs, such as by using eminent domain, or any other method. She then reissued her invitation to members of the East Pennsboro community to be involved with the Facility Planning Committee to help develop ideas and an outlook for the school’s future.
Another resident suggested thinking outside the box when looking at parking needs and parking lots. Spaces fill quickly now when classes are in session and events are being held in the college conference center, and any expansion, let alone a much-discussed fieldhouse, or other sports complex and establishment of a “Main Street College Town” environment, brings more cars and the need for more parking areas.
Attendees seemed to sense a change under Scolforo’s tenure – one of more community outreach.
Residents shared after the meeting a willingness to reconsider their attitudes toward the school that is part of their community.
One couple, residents here since 1973, provide housing to a male student from New Jersey. Ten years ago was the last time they can remember housing students, and then it was a female student who later married a neighbor.
After what some people described as a significant number of years of little to no communication between the East Pennsboro community and the Central Penn campus community, misunderstandings could be melting away from negative perceptions and morphing into harmonious participation.
Career Services Director Steve Hassinger invited a community member to be a mock interviewer for a freshman seminar class, and he accepted.
“These kids get a bad rap,” the resident said.
Another resident added: “I’m glad I came (to the meeting). I’m really, really glad I came.”
Edited by Michael Lear-Olimpi, Media Club co-adviser.