The days tick by and, before you know it, another year has passed us in the city of Harrisburg.
As I normally do for my January column, I’m reliving the recent past by reviewing the top news stories of the last 365 days.
I would say that it was an up-and-down year for Harrisburg, but I feel like I say that every year. In any case, buckle in for a trip down memory lane, assuming, that is, that your memories, like mine, mostly consist of taxes, housing and roadwork.
10. When the Rains Came
In journalism, the weather story may be the last refuge of the uninspired, and, accordingly, we don’t write a lot them. But even we take notice when the relentless rains start to affect people’s everyday lives. In 2018, the deluge began early, took a snow break for a late March blizzard, then continued for much of the year, obliterating outdoor events, delaying road projects and closing City Island briefly in July. In its history, Harrisburg has suffered much worse floods, but that was small comfort to the Pride of the Susquehanna riverboat, which lost weeks of sailing due to high water, leading to financial setbacks and appeals for donations.
9. New District, Same Result
The year started off on a hopeful note for area Democrats, as the state’s long-gerrymandered congressional districts were redrawn. The new 10th district, now centered around the Harrisburg area, still had Republicans in the majority, but their partisan advantage had narrowed. A snoozer of a Democratic primary led to the nomination of George Scott, a likeable, mild-mannered minister who, in the general election, raised a lot of money and fielded a large, enthusiastic team of volunteers. However, in the end, he could not dislodge the entrenched Republican incumbent, Scott Perry, who beat back the challenger by nearly three points.
8. Go Downtown
Harrisburg has suffered from decades of disinvestment. So, you might think that city officials would enthusiastically embrace multi-million-dollar redevelopment projects. Some, however, showed little love for a plan to convert two large, underused office buildings on Pine Street to apartments. City Council President Wanda Williams, claiming a lack of affordable units, objected to the projects. Harristown Development countered that some of the proposed units did meet the definition of “affordable” and, in any case, that the city as a whole, and downtown, in particular, would benefit greatly by an influx of new residents and their money. In the end, Williams’ objection could not derail the projects, which satisfied all other conditions set by a city that lacks a formal affordable housing policy.
7. Empty Spaces
During Harrisburg’s golden age, the Market/Cameron street corridor buzzed with activity from factory workers, auto salesmen, postal clerks and ink-stained wretches. But that was long ago. Today, it’s largely a no man’s land, stuck between hope and despair. On the despair side, it lost one of its few remaining structures—the century-old Schell seed building. But the circle of urban life continues, and, in March, the commonwealth released two promising reports. The first set forth renovation plans for the nearby, historic train station, and the second outlined a long-term vision to restore the Paxton Creek watershed, which would add acres of green space to the blighted area and reduce the risk of flooding. Mayor Eric Papenfuse has called the Paxton Creek project potentially transformational, but that transformation remains many years and many more millions of dollars away.
6. House of Controversy
Every year, a story pops up seemingly from nowhere and then surprises me in its public interest. For 2018, that story was the ongoing saga at the House of Music, Arts & Culture—otherwise known as HMAC. The summertime drama started after a patron said that she was assaulted after leaving the venue. The police soon cleared HMAC of culpability, but not before Facebook exploded in an onslaught of online invective. Soon after, TheBurg reported that HMAC had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and that its owners planned to sell the sprawling art space and restaurant. If HMAC does get new owners, 2019 could be a pivotal year for a place that has come a long way over a decade, when it was a blighted shell, but that, by its co-owner’s own admission, could use fresh leadership.
5. Park & Dine
Last January, I wrapped up my annual year-in-review column by stating that, for the first time in years, my top-10 list excluded the single-most persistent issue in Harrisburg—parking. Well, it’s back! In April, the city, Dauphin County, the Downtown Improvement District and Standard Parking inked a deal to provide free street parking after 5 p.m. throughout much of downtown. The early reviews were positive, with restaurant owners saying that business had picked up once patrons realized they could snag a drink or dinner without risking a $30 ticket. The one-year deal expires soon, so we’ll have to see what City Council and other stakeholders think of their “one-year experiment.”
4. Plan Jam
Second only to parking, the unfinished comprehensive plan is the city’s most evergreen story—with us year in, year out. It may now seem like a distant memory, but the city held a public meeting last January on the draft plan. That public hearing garnered many comments from residents, even as Mayor Papenfuse denounced the draft document as “unworkable” and “unsalvageable.” Papenfuse later threatened to replace the entire Planning Commission, even if it took years, to get a plan more to his liking. Nonetheless, the commission stuck with its draft and, in November, requested $50,000 to finish it up. So, could this be the year that Harrisburg finally gets a new comprehensive plan? Maybe, but I’m already reserving an entry for it on my 2019 list.
3. Drama Class
Generally speaking, Harrisburg is a much less dramatic place than it was a few years ago, during the height of the city’s financial crisis. I now will carve out a great, big exception for the school district, which has taken over as the center of city spectacle and dysfunction. Every month of 2018 seemed to feature some new problem—budget shortfalls, a tax hike, poor academic performance, a controversial grading policy, school board resignations, personnel issues, principal reshuffling and a battle over whether to re-appoint the superintendent, among other issues. I’ll go out on a limb and say that, with control of the school board at stake during upcoming municipal elections, city residents should expect more of the same this year.
2. All Roads Lead to (and from) Harrisburg
This past year, the long-awaited 3rd Street corridor project finally began digging, cutting and drilling. Then it stopped. Then it started again. City officials now say that the streetscape and paving project will conclude this year. But 3rd Street wasn’t the only stretch of road on the minds of city residents in 2018. The city kicked off its “Vision Zero” campaign with a public meeting in June, as it strives for zero pedestrian deaths, an ambitious goal considering the shockingly high rate of road fatalities. The year in infrastructure ended on a more hopeful note. In November, residents packed a public meeting on the city’s plan to convert much of N. 2nd Street to two-way traffic. Suburban commuters may have a different opinion, but the crowd that attended the meeting seemed to support the concept overwhelmingly.
1. The Long Good-Bye
In city life, an issue may arise under one set of assumptions, only to take numerous twists and turns before resolution. Such was the case with Harrisburg’s plan to leave Act 47, the state program for distressed municipalities. We began the year assuming the city would roll into a three-year wind-down of its involvement. That assumption was thrown into doubt after the state proposed doubling the city property tax as a condition for leaving. Appalled, Harrisburg officials asked the state legislature to allow the city to retain the extra taxing authority it has had under Act 47. That bill passed in October, though in a highly modified form that offers just five more years of enhanced taxing power. With that compromise, Harrisburg plans soon to exit Act 47 in 2019, allowing it, after many years, to shed the moniker, “distressed city.”
As I typically do, I will wrap up the January column with the disclaimer that, while these are my choices for the top Harrisburg news items of 2018, they may not be yours. You easily could make a case that I should have included the tragic deaths of a mother and son at the Dock Street Dam, the death of a U.S. marshal during a raid on a house in Allison Hill and the death of restaurateur Nick Laus, which was our single most-read online story of the year.
Here’s hoping that 2019 brings the people of Harrisburg nothing but good news, which I will happily recap a year from now. And more free parking.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.