By Steven Hoffman
At the Oxford Borough Council meeting on Monday night, a group of people interested in the revitalization of downtown Oxford urged the town's leaders to increase the visibility of Oxford police in the business district.
Matthew Schlott said that downtown Oxford was buzzing with activity last Friday night, with more than 400 people enjoying food and drink at Downtown Pasta, the Octoraro Hotel & Tavern, and Flickerwood Wine Cellars. This nighttime hustle and bustle is new to Oxford. Schlott, the general manager of Downtown Pasta, noted that the before the aforementioned three businesses opened, all within the last year, it would have been unlikely for the town to attract so many people at night.
The change in traffic, Schlott said, also requires a change in how the business district is being policed.
“The traffic has shifted and there should be an awareness of that moving forward,” Schlott said.
He and several other business owners encouraged Oxford to boost the presence of police, especially during evening hours. He said that there is still a perception among some people that Oxford isn't safe at night, and that perception might as well be the reality because if people perceive that Oxford isn't safe at night, they won't come to evening activities.
“There is a perception, and as a business owner perception is a reality, that Oxford has two issues—parking and people feel unsafe at night,” Schlott explained. “If the perception is that it’s not safe, the downtown will never thrive.”
Jerome Rodio, the owner of J & K Slightly Touched Furniture & Antiques, told borough council that he frequently sees people loitering in the streets, involved in suspicious activity.
Sue Cole, the executive director of Oxford Mainstreet, Inc., followed up on Rodio's comments by noting that lingering, loitering, and profanity creates an environment that can be intimidating—and can discourage people from visiting the downtown. Cole said that numerous business owners and property owners have expressed the need for more visibility by the police in the Business Improvement District, especially since more Oxford businesses have been extending their evening hours.
“We want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to encourage economic development,” Cole said.
She explained that Oxford Mainstreet, Inc. officials recently attended a meeting of the borough's Police & Public Safety Committee to discuss the possibility of beefing up the police coverage.
Oxford Mayor Geoff Henry said that following that meeting, which took place in early April, Oxford Police Chief John Slauch made some adjustments to assignments for his officers to increase the foot patrols in the business district.
Henry said that those changes should already be noticeable.
The free-ranging discussion touched on several different topics as officials and business owners brainstormed about ways to address the concerns being raised.
Carey Bresler, the director of the Oxford Public Library, said that because the library offers free WiFi, some people have taken to standing out on the porch and loitering. They sometimes smoke and use profanities, and library staff members have been forced to go out and ask the offenders to leave.
Cole said that she has heard stories similar to Bresler's, with business owners having to put up with people who linger and loiter on the streets. She said that many people don't feel comfortable calling the police over these activities because it's not an emergency situation and there is no proof that something illegal is happening.
Chief Slauch, however, encouraged the public to make the call to police so that they can check the situation out.
“If you’re having people creating a problem by smoking or hanging out, if you see a suspicious person, you need to call because that is a legitimate complaint,” Slauch said. “If people don’t belong there, call the police. You don’t have to feel bad about calling us. It's not an inconvenience. If it’s important to you at the time, then call us.”
Henry added that it's critical for people in the town—residents and business owners—to keep the police informed about what's going on.
“We need the business owners to be the eyes and ears for us,” Henry said.
The conversion moved to a lengthy discussion about the parking situation in the downtown area, and how the new parking regulations are impacting some businesses in town. While no solutions were in the offing, Oxford officials will continue to evaluate these issues in the weeks and months ahead.
In other business:
Oxford Borough Council approved a resolution in support of bills being considered by the Pennsylvania State Legislature that would allow municipal police departments to use radar to clock how fast motorists are driving.
Slauch noted that Pennsylvania is the only state in the U.S. that authorizes municipal police departments to monitor speeding, but then prohibits them from using radar, which is the best technology available.
Slauch said that the State Legislature has been considering making this change for the last 40 years, but enough state lawmakers have always opposed the idea to kill the legislation. The reason? Slauch said that the state has always been afraid that local municipalities would use the radar to become a source of revenue.
Council member Randy Grace said that it's ridiculous to allow local law enforcement to issue speeding tickets, but then prevent them from using the best technology available.
The fourth annual Eli's Run, in memory of Eli Matthews, will be held on Saturday, May 10 at the Oxford Area High School cross-country course. The one-mile fun run begins at 9 a.m. and the 5K run/walk will be at 9:30 a.m. The participation fee is $10 for the fun run and $20 for the run/walk. Teams for the 5K run can sign up for $90 (five people maximum). For more information, visit braveeli.com.