Reed, 70, died following a long battle with prostate cancer. He left behind a complicated legacy, one marked both by the city’s nascent renaissance and its eventual financial collapse.
Born in Chambersburg, Reed later moved to Harrisburg and attended Bishop McDevitt High School. As a teenager, he already was involved in Democratic politics and left Dickinson College to pursue his political ambitions.
At just 25 years old, he was elected to the state Assembly, serving five years, and also was elected Dauphin County commissioner. His true desire, though, was to lead his struggling hometown, and he was elected mayor in 1981.
At the time, Harrisburg was suffering from decades of deindustrialization, depopulation and disinvestment, as well as devastating flooding. He immediately made big plans for change.
Through 28 years in office, Reed had many successes, including reviving City Island, attracting a minor league baseball team, opening the National Civil War Museum and reinvigorating the moribund downtown.
Over time, though, questions arose over how the city financed these and other projects. In the early 2000s, a bungled retrofit of the city’s troubled incinerator revealed Harrisburg’s fragile financial state and very high levels of debt. It also was discovered that Reed had spent millions of public dollars buying artifacts for a series of museums he hoped to build.
In 2009, Reed lost a bid for an unprecedented eighth term, and, soon, the city was placed into the state’s Act 47 program for financially distressed municipalities then put directly into state receivership.
Meanwhile, the state launched an investigation into Reed’s dealings and, in 2015, charged him with 499 criminal counts, most later dismissed due to statute of limitations restrictions. In 2017, he was given probation after pleading guilty to 20 criminal counts related to museum artifacts found in his possession.
Reed left behind a complex legacy, one of rebuilding and distress, one the city lives with to this day.
Since his death was announced on Saturday, many key players in the city, including those directly impacted by Reed, have issued statements on his life and legacy.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse
“Mayor Reed dedicated his life to the citizens of Harrisburg and central Pennsylvania. His transformative vision left an indelible mark on every major development project in our capital for over a generation. Harrisburg mourns his loss, and on behalf of our City, I extend my deepest condolences to his family. The flags at City Hall, Riverfront Park, and City Island will be lowered to half-staff in honor of his life of public service.”
Dr. Eric Darr, president of Harrisburg University
“Mayor Stephen R. Reed was a visionary whose foresight changed the landscape of Harrisburg. Under his leadership, Harrisburg University was created as a hub for STEM learning and economic development. He lived to see today’s HU recognized as a model of higher education and civic impact. The legacy of Steve Reed includes lives changed and a region transformed, in part because Harrisburg University emerged from his vision of a vibrant city full of opportunities.”
Ted Black, CEO of Whitaker Center
“On behalf of the Board of Directors and Emeritus of Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, we would like to express our deep sadness on the passing of Mayor Stephen Reed. Mayor Reed was an outstanding leader who, along with other community, government, legislative and business leaders, spearheaded the collaborative effort to create a first-of-its-kind visionary institution 20 years ago. We are forever grateful to Mayor Reed for the instrumental role he played in helping with Harrisburg’s revitalization and in establishing Whitaker Center as Harrisburg’s “Crown Jewel.” His legacy will live on in the dedication, guidance and inspiration for the next generation of children who are introduced to science and the arts through Whitaker Center. We send our condolences to his family and the region, and thank one of our most valuable founders.”
Brad Jones, president and CEO of Harristown Enterprises
“Harristown salutes Stephen R. Reed for his lifetime of service to the City of Harrisburg. He had a way of making us all believe that anything was truly possible with vision and tireless persistence. Reed was a partner with Harristown on a myriad of major economic development projects including the Hilton Harrisburg and the recreating of Market Square Plaza, the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts, the Penn National Headquarters office tower, Strawberry Square Phase II, the International House, the creation of the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District, Bricco restaurant, and so much more. Steve Reed was the master of absorbing the details of any new project and then reciting it back to the public with all the colorful details that would bring it to life. He had an incredibly bold sense of optimism for the City of Harrisburg and was a consummate cheerleader and champion for the city.”
The Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC
Steve Reed was a rare visionary whose 35 years of elected public service, 28 as mayor, was focused on restoring and re-inventing Harrisburg as a great city. Our city, our region is simply a better place because of Mayor Reed. He was a friend and a champion of the Chamber & CREDC. He was a catalyst for our region in the truest sense of the word. On behalf of our members, our boards and staff, we offer our sympathies to his family and those men and women who worked with him throughout his life of public service to the city he loved.”
This story has been updated several times.