Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Downtown’s Town Hall: Brad Jones and the re-imagining of Strawberry Square.

The mayor of Strawberry Square is holding court on this Tuesday morning. From his soaring chamber, he greets his constituency.

Some passersby get a wave and a hello, as in “Hi, Mr. Regan,” who happens to be state Sen. Mike Regan. Others stop at his table for a quick word about their businesses or schools. When he notices grandparents and their preschool-aged grandson looking at the centerpiece Chockablock Clock, silenced for the moment, he obligingly takes out a key and turns on the clanking, whirring, Rube Goldberg-ian centerpiece of Harrisburg’s downtown mall.  

It’s all in a morning’s work for Brad Jones, president and CEO of Harristown Enterprises. He is, of course, not a mayor at all. But from a table at Little Amps Coffee Roasters—one of the new businesses in Strawberry Square—he sometimes presides over the moving pieces of Harristown’s ambitious plan to transform a dated, 1970s-era idea of urban renewal into a fresh, 21st century hub for live, work and play.     

“We’re trying to create community here,” he said. “This was always the town hall.”

A brief history: Under the aegis of Harristown, a private nonprofit created in 1974, urban revitalization bulldozed into downtown Harrisburg with demolition of the iconic, if distressed, Penn Harris Hotel, making room in 1979 for a retail-office complex along Strawberry Alley. By 1990, phase two incorporated historic 19th- and 20th-century buildings along Market Street, where retail once flourished.

Verizon rented much of the upper-level office space, but, despite the presence of such mainstay businesses as Auntie Anne’s, the Strawberry Patch and Ideas and Objects, Strawberry Square, with its massive atrium, seemed empty and lost in time.

The recession years were especially chilling, but Harristown’s volunteer board of directors had already launched a reinvention plan seeking revitalized retail, the addition of residential units and support for what Jones calls an “education corridor.”

The pending 2016 vacancy of the Verizon Tower was the launching point. Painstaking negotiations with the state relocated 900 Department of General Services workers into the heart of downtown from their old digs at the former State Hospital grounds at the edge of the city.

Getting that 17-year lease with the state, and its power to nearly erase $41.6 million in debt obligations on the facility, “was like breathing again,” said Jones. Those 900 workers didn’t displace existing bodies but filled a space where only about 250 people knocked around by then. As Jones put it, “Retail follows people.” And so does residential.

One of the first signs of new life was a childcare facility, immediately popular among office workers happy to drop off, visit and pick up their kids right where they work. New office tenants included highly desirable tech businesses and a health care consultant. A space accessed both from an interior corridor and the street was converted into the bright Market on Market, stocked with convenience-store fare like soda, Tastykakes and Hershey’s Ice Cream pints, plus millennial chow like okra chips and a bin of fresh onions.

In a survey, Strawberry Square workers, residents and patrons clamored for a drug store, so Harristown obliged by luring in Rite Aid from across Market Street, coming soon to 14,000 square feet in the same corner once occupied by a Thrift Drug.

“We’ve been working on this for 10 years,” said Jones, who declined to share Rite Aid’s lease length but promised it’s lengthy. “This is a business that is clearly going to prosper here.”

Reasons to Stay

Amma Johnson, who sells her bags and other boutique ware in her shop, Amma Jo, cheers the innovation of a mixed-use complex, in contrast to shopping malls where she would be “next to a million other people selling handbags.”

Today’s customers seek experiences, she said. For her, they include state workers on lunch breaks, attorneys on Dauphin County Courthouse business, contractors working in Pennsylvania’s capital city or Strawberry Square residents.

“People want to come downtown,” said Johnson, who opened in December 2015 then, last year, gobbled up the storefront next door. “They want to browse. They want to eat. They want to have a cup of coffee, and they want to have it all in one place.”

In short, they “need more reasons to stay,” she said, just before two browsing Amma Jo customers left the store with a cheery, “We’ll be back with money tomorrow.”

Not every vendor agrees with Strawberry Square’s new direction. Vendors who asked to remain anonymous said they worry that the one-stop shop convenience of Rite Aid, stocked with some things also sold at surrounding specialty vendors, will drain their customer pools.

But what “The Square,” as Jones often calls it, takes away, it also gives. Twenty-two upscale apartments, carved out of former office space, opened last year and filled immediately, bringing in full-time residents for the first time, all with their own need to eat and drink and buy. Many of the new tenants work at DGS or Harrisburg University or with a Harristown-tenant business, Jones said. Harristown pitches the residents’ easy access to retail, restaurants, entertainment and nature. In his usual energetic manner, he enthusiastically explained that tenants can stay entirely roofed during the course of a day: eating in the food court or at the Hilton Harrisburg, seeing a show at Whitaker Center, taking classes at Harrisburg University, working out at FitnessU. All are directly linked to the complex.

As for restaurants, Harristown is helping slake the city’s seemingly insatiable appetite for new eateries. From the owners of El Sol Mexican Restaurant, Fresa Bistro (“Fresa is Spanish for strawberry,” remarked Jones. “How cool is that?”) is slated to offer sandwiches and wraps, paninis and salads.

Harrisburg might not ever be an 18-hour city, but 12 or 14 hours of ceaseless activity seem feasible, Jones said.

“Some days, you might have a shot at a 16-hour city, but we’ve got to do more,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of density, but we’ve got to continue to do more and capitalize on the opportunity to help these corridors grow.”

In addition to Harrisburg University, the education corridor includes the Capital Area School for the Arts Charter School, for which Harristown recently added new music-room space, and Temple University, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, certificate programs and professional development. Harrisburg High School SciTech Campus is across the street.

Strawberry Square aligns with HU’s notion of city as campus by offering such amenities as eateries, banks and a fitness center.

“These are all important assets that we don’t have to provide,” said HU President Dr. Eric Darr.

HU interns have worked with Harristown entities, and WildFig, a data analytics startup that launched from HU and employs HU students, rents Harristown space. Jones also serves on HU’s board.

As in any marriage, there are occasional differences. Darr said he would like HU to be “THE university in the corridor,” but added that he recognizes the collaborative advantages of nearby university students and faculty.

“In general, we’re aligned with the direction Harristown is trying to take the corridor, particularly the more recent movement toward trying to attract technology businesses and analytics businesses, and providing nice, yet affordable housing for younger workers,” he said.

Future collaborative plans for HU and Harristown include an expanded, “more formal” business incubator and accelerator, to replace HU’s outgrown Blackberry Alley incubator, Darr said.

“We all know there’s a lot of work to do in the corridor,” he said. “Generally, as long-term players, we’re focused on some of the basics of trying to improve the basic corridor itself and the buildings and the facilities and the infrastructure, some of those basic pieces that have to be taken care of. Unfortunately, the city’s not in a position to do it themselves, and, so, we’re left as private entities to try to piece together ways to do this. When you’re talking infrastructure, that’s a pretty expensive proposition.”

About People

In all this, there is still the matter of Strawberry Square’s design, that living tribute to the disco era. Jones and Harristown are trying to give it new life.

A $16 million energy efficiency retrofit replaced every light fixture in the complex, saving money and brightening up the place. A $400,000 rebuild brought a wheezing escalator into the modern age (“As one who uses the escalator almost every day, I appreciate the undertaking,” said Darr). HVAC systems were revamped and bathrooms renovated. Badly needed elevator and skylight refurbs are on the 2017 docket, said Jones.   

Of course, nobody hangs around to admire light fixtures, but the Harristown board elected to tackle needed infrastructure upgrades first, “reinvesting in the systems of the buildings,” Jones said. Attention should turn to cosmetic improvements by 2018, the year when a Christmas tree, now on order and proportionally big enough for the atrium, will deck the halls for the holidays, he added.

In the meantime, the push is on to attract what Strawberry Square needs most—living bodies spending money. Among new businesses, Little Amps opened its third café in 2015, warming up the cold, open atrium and offering an attractive, central meeting place for workers, students and residents. Inside the vast space, the HBG Flea found a winter home for its monthly craft market, and pop-up events like craft beer tastings increasingly encourage mingling and socializing.

Jones said that Strawberry Square’s growth spurt originated with his predecessor, Russell Ford, and the Harristown board. Jones took over the helm in January 2015, 13 years after starting there as corporate director for public and community services. His career in economic development went from the state and federal levels to “nose right to the ground,” with oversight over “just about every brick, every fire hydrant, every tree.”

“I went from 10,000 feet to ground level,” he said. “I have to say, ground level is a lot more fun.”

To Jones, this is all perfectly natural. The son of Cliff Jones, legendary Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry president and cabinet secretary for six governors, Brad Jones grew up with economic development, attending ribbon cuttings at 5 years old. “If you try to make somebody’s day every day,” Cliff Jones would say, “you’ll make your own day.” He also preached that, “It’s not about projects.”

“It’s about people,” Brad Jones said. “Helping people get jobs. Helping people find places to live. Helping people start businesses. Those kinds of lessons stuck with me.”

Jones is a Camp Hill resident with three children, one still in high school. He hopes that Harristown’s support for CASA and SciTech help create opportunities for more families to find quality schooling for their children. He is also a guitarist who once played with a band in Washington, D.C. Sitting at his de facto conference table by Little Amps, he says he is “the luckiest guy.”

“To me, this is the best job in the city,” he said. “It couldn’t get any more fun than this. You’re building your environment, adding to it every day. It’s exciting.”
For more information about Strawberry Square, visit www.strawberrysquare.com.

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