Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Who Works in Harrisburg? Our mapping project shows where commuters come from—and where they’re going.

Screenshot 2016-04-28 13.01.58Who works in Harrisburg?

Last year, when the city proposed a hike in the local services tax, from $1 to $3 per week, the age-old distinction between the capital’s residents and commuters reared its head.

The tax affects everyone who works in the city, regardless of where they live, with the exception of people below a set poverty threshold. But because an overwhelming number of the city’s workers commute, the local services tax is often branded a “commuter tax”—it’s one of the few means Pennsylvania’s third-class cities have of taxing people who work within their borders, but don’t live there. According to numbers provided by city hall, commuters paying the tax would outnumber residents by a ratio of 5 to 1.

How you view this statistic probably says a lot about how you view the relationship between the city and commuters. To some, it demonstrates how much the city depends on commuters for revenue—not only in the form of taxes, but in the money they spend on lunch at local restaurants and happy hours at local bars. “This mayor needs to keep in mind, all the revenue is coming from commuters,” one young commuter, who worked as a valet at the Hilton Harrisburg, told me in regards to the proposed hike back in December. “I hate to say it, but not much is coming from the residents.”

To others, it demonstrates how deeply people living outside the city depend on it as the region’s economic center and source of jobs.

This month, TheBurg teamed up with Stephen Cline of Urban 3D Modeling to help readers visualize the resident-commuter relationship in the form of an interactive map. Using data from OnTheMap, a U.S. Census Bureau program, Cline divided the city into nine neighborhoods and linked the number of jobs in each to the locations from which workers commute each day to reach them.

When you click on a neighborhood, you’ll see the total number of jobs, along with the distribution of city residents who hold them (in purple) and commuters (in yellow). Each circle on the map corresponds to an individual census block, the smallest unit available in the census data. Each circle’s size is proportionate to the number of workers who live on a given block and work in the selected neighborhood.

OnTheMap combines state employment data with demographic information collected by the federal government. It’s not a perfect representation of actual employment numbers and commuting distances. The source records cover about 95 percent of private sector jobs, plus most civilian federal jobs, but they exclude members of the military, U.S. postal workers and the self-employed. The program also uses “synthetic” data methods to keep workplace and residential information confidential. According to the Census Bureau, the OnTheMap data are “statistically analogous to actual worker counts and locations but not exact.”

For the interactive map, Cline grouped the jobs into nine city neighborhoods, based roughly on the zoning code and generally accepted geographic boundaries. Four of these neighborhoods—Uptown, Midtown, South Harrisburg and Allison Hill/Harrisburg East—are primarily residential, with an assortment of employers sprinkled among their living places. Employers in these areas include the businesses along 3rd and Maclay Streets in Midtown; the PinnacleHealth Polyclinic Campus and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Uptown; Pennsy Supply and Paxton Street’s strip malls and auto dealers in South Harrisburg; and the Derry Street commercial corridor and the public schools in Allison Hill.

Most of the jobs, however, are in the areas we labeled as Downtown, the Capitol Complex and the Industrial Corridor. Our Industrial Corridor is the primarily non-residential district straddling Cameron Street between the Harrisburg Area Community College campus to the north and the Amtrak station to the south. It encompasses a range of employers including Capital Area Transit, HACC, Goodwill, Dayton Parts, K&D Factory Service and Consolidated Scrap Resources. The Capitol Complex captures the almost exclusively public administration jobs of the statehouse and state agencies, while Downtown adds lobbying, banking, and law and advertising firms, along with a high concentration of food and entertainment jobs, to the tally of additional state workers.

For some, the map and the census data may simply give statistical confirmation of something already observed while living or working here. (I’m thinking, for example, of the long lines of cars on 2nd and Forster each weekday between 4 and 5 p.m., waiting to cross over one of the bridges out of town.) But there may also be some surprises. It’s interesting to see the numbers of people who travel long distances to the city for work. I was also surprised to see that, in 2014, some 15,000 Harrisburg residents are estimated to have commuted to a job outside the city (a fact not reflected in the graphic, but available from the OnTheMap tool).

Most people, during their travel to and from work, probably don’t think of the municipal boundaries they’re crossing. But in a distressed city like Harrisburg, the border matters. When an employer creates jobs or relocates them to the city, is it any wonder that officials see dollar signs? Starting last September, the state Department of Human Services began moving its employees from a building just outside the city, on the State Hospital grounds, to the so-called Verizon Tower downtown. The floor-by-floor move-in, which continued through last month, will eventually bring nearly 800 workers to town.

The lease negotiations were led by the city’s state advisors, who, in an April 5 update to the Commonwealth Court, pointed to some of the benefits of the move. Among other things, they said, the new employees “will increase Local Service Tax to City by approximately $42,000 per year.”

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