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Father John Wagner, Lehighton borough manager and priest-in-charge at St. Mark's/St. John's, Jim Thorpe

Plans and a prayer
Lehighton borough manager wants community to be a destination

By AL ZAGOFSKY TN Correspondent azagofsk@ptd.net
Times-News, Lehighton
http://www.tnonline.com/node/479826

John Wagner "I have a dream for Lehighton to be a destination for people, rather than simply a place through which they pass on their way to other locations," said John Wagner, borough manager of Lehighton. "I see the revitalization of our downtown area, followed by revitalization of the residential areas, as being key to the future of the borough."

Wagner said the Lehighton Borough Council recently retained Urban Development and Research Corporation of Bethlehem, an urban planner and an economist, to perform a downtown revitalization study for the borough. The study will encompass all of First Street, the Sgt. Stanley Hoffman Blvd., Rt. 443, and all intersecting streets within one block of those byways. "One of the key components which I insisted each of the firms include, is an economic gap study," Wagner explained. "The gap study will tell us the areas where we have a surplus of businesses, and the areas where we have needs in the region that are not met with our current businesses so, we can help define what kinds of businesses we want to attract to the borough."

Wagner has received support from a group of downtown businesses organized as the Lehighton Downtown Initiative Committee. "That committee is working hard to attract new businesses to the borough," Wagner said. "I have challenged them as a nonprofit group, to purchase one of the structures on First Street, rehab it and use it as incubator space for new businesses." "The borough has a lot of waterfront property," Wagner noted. "I can envision that area developed perhaps with restaurants and outdoor shopping areas that take advantage of the view of the Lehigh River from the borough." For instance, he pointed to the stoney beach on the Lehigh River beyond Dunbar's Beverage Distributor. The beach is used as a lunch spot for rafters and has been a local partying place. Recognizing it is a wet land, Wagner is not ready to make recommendations until the report is completed, but he could foresee shops on piers overlooking the beach.

Wagner sees additional areas to watch: revitalization of the downtown, development of the vacant land along Sgt. Stanley Hoffman Blvd. (Route 209 northbound bypass), and preventing deterioration of Rt. 443. To this end, he would like to see the organization broaden its focus to become Lehighton Initiative Committee and drop the "Downtown" from its name. In the downtown area, Wagner notes that already North First Street has new curbs and sidewalks. He is writing a grant proposal to extend the work to South First Street extending to the Sgt. Stanley Hoffman Blvd. intersection.

"We are in the process of adopting a standard for decorative light poles, looking to replace the metal halide cobra head light fixtures with LED fixtures, which are half the energy consumption with 10 times the life expectancy. The cobra heads are flat panel, but the pedestrian scale fixtures are colonial period." Wagner also sees the borough focusing on its assets: the Lehighton Pool, the Jacob Weiss Park, and the borough's early Moravian heritage.

Besides acting as Lehighton borough manager, Wagner, who is a civil engineer and former municipal consulting engineer, serves as the priest at the Episcopal Parish of St. Mark and St. John in Jim Thorpe. He found that he had interests both in theology and in engineering. "This was the ideal way to tie the two together," he said. "It helps me to have a more open mind and a more open heart when residents come to see me with problems. "And I bless all the plans before they go out the door," he joked.

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