When Dauphin County Commissioner Jeff Haste learned about Death Cab for Cutie’s avid followers, he figured the band would draw a crowd to its June 2019 Riverfront Park concert. Then the rains came, and he thought, “I don’t know if this is going to work.”
“But it did, and I thought that was a really telling point,” he said now, looking back on the soggy HU Presents concert that restored live music to the banks of the river. “I remember that day, seeing groups of people come into town and go into restaurants before the show. That’s what we want to do—help drive business to our different restaurants and shops and help grow our economy.”
While HU Presents, the Harrisburg University-sponsored series, fills a live-music void by attracting big names and notable niche acts to Harrisburg stages, it’s also bringing new dollars to restaurants and hotels in and around the city. All told, the series has pumped $1.5 million into the local economy, according to Haste.
Beginning in November 2018, HU Presents established itself with shows at Club XL, on the city’s outskirts. Then it added downtown venues, choosing sites that best suit each act and its audience. Grace Potter rocked the Forum. Cage the Elephant, 2020 Grammy winner for rock album of the year, is coming to Riverfront Park, as is the Icelandic band, Of Monsters and Men.
Harrisburg old-timers may remember a thriving music scene, with name acts at the pulsating Metron or the laid-back Gullifty’s Basement. In that spirit, HU Presents originated as a spinoff of Harrisburg University’s inaugural esports event, the HUE Festival, in 2018. HU wanted to bring people downtown while raising brand awareness in an interactive, cost-effective way, said HU President Eric Darr.
“Whatever we can do to improve the city of Harrisburg, improve the life here, that’s what we should do,” said Darr, who admits to being “a little crazy” about annual family excursions to concerts and music festivals. “The music represents one of the ways for improving life and economics in the city of Harrisburg for everybody.”
The shows are factors in downtown’s expanding arts scene. Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District Executive Director Todd Vander Woude cited a surge in offerings, aided by recent growth in residential options.
“The more people down here, the more it helps everybody out,” he said.
Restaurant owners have noticed, he added. All those music lovers and culture vultures arrive with open wallets.
“You definitely know when it’s show night,” agreed Hilton Harrisburg General Manager Joe Massaro. “You get a big crowd early. You see people leave at the same time to go to their show, and then you get a later showing when people come back for drinks.”
Hotels get a boost, too. The Hilton often books the acts and their crews appearing in Harrisburg and Hershey, said Massaro. Haste is seeing travelers from Baltimore, Reading and Philadelphia, complementing a rise in out-of-towners coming for jazz and blues offerings.
“I want folks to know that we’re somewhat of a hip area, and we’re going to make it a performing arts area, and we’re going to make it a fun place to be,” he said.
HU Presents helps brand the Harrisburg area as “an important destination,” said Massaro.
“You might not see a direct result on that one particular show, but any time you’re promoting a region as having a robust culture, with wonderful things to see and do, that helps you in many other time periods,” he said.
Consistent, quality programming gives visitors’ bureaus timely and unique experiences to promote, said Rick Dunlap, spokesman for Visit Hershey & Harrisburg. HU Presents extends concert season beyond the warmer months into “our typically slower tourism seasons,” he said.
“That is important when we are looking for ways to drive more visits and overnight stays during fall and winter,” Dunlap said.
Dauphin County raked in nearly $2.5 billion from travelers in 2018, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. But while lodging and food and beverage showed increases from 2017, spending of $587 million on recreation—the category that includes arts and live music—represented a slight dip.
Music promoters know central Pennsylvania because Hershey Entertainment & Resorts has long attracted top acts to a market that’s comparatively small in the stadium-tour scene, said HU Director of Live Entertainment and Media Services Frank Schofield.
“We’re so lucky to have Hershey in central Pennsylvania,” said Schofield, the entertainment veteran who heads HU Presents and herds all the cats necessary to get live shows on stage. “I don’t think people in this area realize how blessed we are because people in most markets our size still have to drive two to three hours to see a major-market show.”
The emergence of music streaming compels bands to make their money on the road. With the acts that don’t fill stadiums but are now packing XL Live, the Forum and Riverfront Park, “you just have to ask,” Schofield said.
“Bands always want to play to the crowds and get to their listeners,” he said. “Shows that we are doing in downtown Harrisburg give them that opportunity.”
The appearance of Death Cab for Cutie “helped HU turn the corner as far as the agencies realizing we can handle the bigger shows,” said Schofield.
“There are so many music options out there in live entertainment, whether it be a small club, major stadium tour, mid-level theater or whatever,” he said. “We all work together, and we all get along.”
Dauphin County and corporate sponsors share the vision for the series, said Schofield.
“HU is the main engine behind this force that’s driving the music scene, trying to get people excited about getting out to a show, coming to the city, getting a babysitter and buying a ticket,” he said. “There are a lot of fun things we’re doing. I don’t think we’ve seen the top yet, but we continue to grow, and it’ll be interesting to see whether this thing levels out year after year.”
Darr constantly encounters people thanking him for the music revival.
“I can’t put a dollar sign to it, but if part of the goal is to make Harrisburg and the region seen as a place to settle down and come visit and be a part of, then I’d say we’re doing a pretty good job,” he said.
HU Presents has upcoming shows at XL Live, the Forum and in Riverfront Park. For information and tickets, visit www.concertseries.harrisburgu.edu.