Last weekend, some good friends from Washington, D.C., came up to Harrisburg for a visit.
They’d been here before, but not in awhile, so I took them on a little “renovation” tour—the historic buildings that had been rehabbed and reoccupied since their last visit.
We walked through st@rtup’s glorious new space at 3rd and Boas, then checked out H*MAC, had a drink in the Millworks. I showed them the buildings now occupied by the Susquehanna Art Museum, modernrugs.com and Zeroday Brewing.
Later, thinking about it, it struck me that not once did I utter the words, “Eric Papenfuse.”
I mention this only because all four challengers for the mayor’s office have, to varying degrees, built their campaigns around giving the sitting mayor the credit (or perhaps the blame, I’m not quite sure) for the dramatic redevelopment of Midtown Harrisburg over the past few years.
I’m not here to defend Papenfuse, as TheBurg does not endorse candidates. But I am here to defend reality, as I believe that credit for the transformation of Midtown should go to the people who deserve it.
Now, Papenfuse, as a businessman, is among that group. His Midtown Scholar Bookstore helped anchor redevelopment at the heart of the neighborhood ever since it opened at N. 3rd and Verbeke. He subsequently bought and renovated the buildings that house the LGBT Center and Yellow Bird Café and is completing renovations of three buildings on the 1400-block of N. 3rd Street. Those are solid contributions.
However, he should not be the sole recipient of the honors or arrows, depending upon your perspective, of what has become of Midtown Harrisburg.
Recognize also Josh Kesler, who, through enormous risk and millions of dollars, gave us the Millworks.
Recognize also John Traynor who, through enormous risk and millions of dollars, gave us H*MAC.
Recognize also Zachary Nitzan, who through enormous risk and millions of dollars, is giving us the modernrugs.com buildings.
Recognize also developers like GreenWorks, Brickbox, WCI, Lift Development and the Vartan Group, which all have completed major projects in Midtown.
Recognize also small business owners like Ruth Prall, Adam Porter, Adam Brackbill, Ivan Black, Samra Alic, Theo and Brandalynn Armstrong, Steph and Ammon Perry, the vendors in the Broad Street Market and many others who have given Midtown vibrancy, customers and a resurgent economy.
Now, there are two significant things that Papenfuse, as mayor, has tried to do in Midtown that are worth noting. The first was the creation of the Broad Street Market Task Force, whose recommendations, I hope, will help the market further its progress and secure its future. The second was his attempt to close down the Third Street Café, a battle that has been criticized simultaneously for attempted gentrification and for ignoring troubled bars in other neighborhoods (you may notice a contradiction there). So, yes, he tried, but failed, in an effort spanning two years and counting.
Meanwhile, Papenfuse’s detractors have ignored where priorities and money actually have been focused during his term: the LED streetlight project (citywide), the multi-modal project (several neighborhoods), the MulDer Square project (Allison Hill) and the sinkhole project (South Harrisburg).
Years ago, a friend, now deceased, warned me not to get my hopes up for Midtown Harrisburg. Then in his 70s, he told me he had seen the neighborhood do a two-step forward, almost two-step backward routine too many times.
I wish he had lived to see this day, that he could have shared a drink with us last weekend, as I believe that Midtown has finally reached a tipping point, a place of sustainable progress.
In this heated election season, it’s important to understand how that happened. It didn’t happen because Papenfuse waved a magic wand and showered the neighborhood with money. It happened because developers took extraordinary risks to restore this and that building, then business people took extraordinary risks to open this or that restaurant, brewery, shop. Ignoring that reality is a profound disservice to those who have actually rebuilt Midtown Harrisburg.
I would like to be charitable and believe that candidates have honestly confused correlation with causation or simply don’t understand how business or development work. However, it’s election season, and charity is hard to come by, especially when giving credit where credit is due.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.
Disclosure: TheBurg’s publisher, Alex Hartzler, is a principal with WCI Partners.