For the past 35 years, a unique nonprofit has quietly been making a difference in hundreds of cities and towns across Pennsylvania.
Based in Midtown Harrisburg, the PA Downtown Center (PDC) is powered by a staff of urban and regional planners, preservationists and designers passionate about working with communities and community organizations to help them undertake strategic revitalization plans.
With PDC’s help, communities strive for such important goals as increased quality of life, sense of place, long-term sustainability and competitiveness.
Julie Fitzpatrick, PDC’s executive director, said that her greatest job satisfaction comes with helping communities progress in their revitalization goals.
“It’s not always about making it easy for them,” she said. “Sometimes, it might actually be about causing a ruckus because it’s about expanding and growing. But it really is about us helping them be the best versions of themselves.”
Fitzpatrick has been with the Downtown Center since 2005, assuming the helm in mid-2019 following the tenure of long-time executive director, Bill Fontana. During this time, she has built a national reputation as an expert in community revitalization and development, with a knack for connecting with people and helping communities and towns re-discover their own personal brand of magic.
Todd Vander Woude, executive director of Harrisburg’s Downtown Improvement District, said that he has worked with Fitzpatrick and PDC for many years.
“Julie has great knowledge of downtowns and other Pennsylvania communities,” he said. “She’s so easy to talk to and is great at connecting communities to help them solve issues.”
He then added, with a chuckle, “And she knows and remembers everything.”
Host of Services
At its core, PDC is a membership organization. Member communities can tap into a host of network-based meetings and educational opportunities—anything from governance training, financial review processes, partnership building, volunteer development and preservation basics to zoning, budgeting and events.
While communities don’t have to be members to work with PDC, the benefits are persuasive.
“Once you engage in what we offer, it’s just such a host of services and offerings that I really can’t imagine doing this sort of work and not plugging into us,” Fitzpatrick said. “It just helps so much.”
Due to the long-game nature of most community improvement efforts, the field is not for the fickle or faint of heart. Later this month, close to 300 people who have chosen to undertake this difficult work will convene at the Hilton Harrisburg for PDC’s annual conference and 35th anniversary celebration.
Vander Woude, who sits on this year’s conference planning committee, shared his excitement about the event.
“It means a lot to have the conference come here,” he said. “Harrisburg has a great story to tell. The city is really walkable, so we’ll be highlighting some great projects and can’t wait to share ideas and really tell the story of what we’re all about in Harrisburg.”
In addition to the many conference sessions scheduled and an awards dinner, attendees can take advantage of mobile workshops highlighting the city’s various redevelopment projects, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, murals, rain gardens and stormwater management solutions.
Garry Gilliam, founder and CEO of the Bridge Ecovillage (and a Harrisburg native and former Seattle Seahawk) will deliver the opening keynote on the critical role of investing in urban communities to achieving sustainability targets.
Author Philip J. Merrill, CEO and founder of Nanny Jack & Company, an African American heritage consulting business, will present a breakfast keynote titled, “Telling the Fuller Story.”
Wednesday’s closing luncheon will include a panel discussion by the 2022 gubernatorial candidates.
The PA Downtown Center’s tagline long has been, “Helping you make your town a better place.” In our conversation, Fitzpatrick stressed the community-based, ground-up approach critical to success in revitalization efforts.
“Most people who enter this field want to make a difference,” she said. “It’s not about the individual or their ego. It’s about collaboration, relationship building, incremental progress and patience. But with this type of work, you really do get out of it what you’ve put into it.”.
The Pennsylvania Downtown Center is located at 1230 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.padowntown.org or phone 717-233-4675.
The Pennsylvania Downtown Center’s 2022 conference and 35th anniversary celebration takes place June 26 to 29 at the Hilton Harrisburg, 1 N. 2nd St., Harrisburg. For conference details, visit www.padowntown.org/conference. Readers of TheBurg can use the code BURG22 for 50% off the conference’s day registration rate.
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