Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

City council president blocks vote on Federal Courthouse plans, staging symbolic rebuke of hiring practices.

Shortly after tabling an anticipated vote on Harrisburg’s proposed 2019 municipal budget, City Council tonight made a symbolic gesture in support of local laborers when it declined to approve plans for a long-delayed federal courthouse project.

Council was scheduled tonight to vote on a proposed land development plan submitted by the U.S. Department of General Services, which is constructing a $192 million federal courthouse on 6th and Reily Streets in Midtown Harrisburg.

Council members said that federal government officials had not shown commitment to hiring local laborers for the project, which broke ground in September and is scheduled for completion in 2021.

Williams pressed federal representatives in December to commit to hire local contractors for the project, particularly women- and minority-owned businesses. But she said they failed to make any commitments to Harrisburg’s local trades workforce.

In response, she used her power as council president to withdraw the land development plan from tonight’s city council agenda.

“We have to make a statement to make a change, and if this is the way me make the statement, so be it,” Williams said. “I will not sit by and allow anyone to keep coming here and developing and not utilize the residents who live in this city.”

The proposal already cleared the city’s Planning Commission in an Oct. 3 vote. City council has 90 days to act on it before it is deemed approved by third-class city planning code, according to deputy city solicitor Tiffanie Baldock.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse pointed out that failure to act on the land use plan granted it “tacit approval,” and challenged council to vote the resolution down instead.

But Williams said tonight that she would not reschedule the proposal for a vote. She acknowledged that failure to act on the land use plan would not stop GSA from building the courthouse, but said council had to take a stand using whatever means it could

Members of the building trades community addressed council during tonight’s public comment period. They implored council to press for more local and minority representation in development projects, saying such projects provided valuable opportunities for laborers and young people learning new trades.

“It is immoral for the federal government to build a courthouse without using local labor,” said Rev. Frank Hairston-Allen, president of the Harrisburg chapter of the NAACP. “The moral consequence of those jobs that are going to be in the courthouse that will not be obtained by minorities and others in the city is a deprivation.”

Dauphin county commissioner George Hartwick expressed his disappointment that more local minority and women-owned businesses were not being hired for the project.

“That corridor can really benefit from the economic development that’s going to happen in the city, yet we don’t see Dauphin County’s [minority and women] employers, or union based employers, at the table,” Hartwick said. “We want to know where Dauphin County businesses are.”

Council community and economic development chair Dave Madsen said that council has no other paths of recourse to advocate for local laborers, since it cannot compel GSA, legally or otherwise, to award its contracts to certain firms.

“We can’t force them, but we can ask them to come to the table,” Madsen said. “But there’s no legal or procedural mechanism we can use to force them to do the right thing.”

City council did vote tonight to void unused “paper streets” on a lot at Sixth and Maclay Streets in Uptown Harrisburg, just blocks away from the federal courthouse site. The vote clears the way for national car parts retailer AutoZone to consolidate the lots in preparation to build a full-service retail location.

Representatives from AutoZone and the Vartan Group, which owns the 6th Street lot, appeared before council last month to answer questions about their proposed development. Vartan Group CEO Ralph Vartan said it would be Harrisburg’s first, market-rate construction project by a national retailer in decades, other than a dollar store in Allison Hill.

Despite the promise of new development, nobody on council asked AutoZone for assurance that it would hire local laborers.

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