Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse calls it “a good opportunity for the city.”
Some Harrisburg City Council members see a potential for problems.
All agree that a proposal by a college to move into Harrisburg’s government center is an unusual arrangement, but one that could benefit a cash-strapped city seeking novel solutions to its profound infrastructure needs.
Last night, council members heard the details of a proposal by Eastern University, a St. Davids, Pa.-based Christian college, to move its satellite campus from a building near I-83 in Lower Paxton Township into the basement of city hall.
“I wanted to be in the city,” said Wesley Bunting, the Harrisburg campus site director, explaining the potential move. “We’ve been here, but the people of Harrisburg don’t know we’re here.”
Therefore, the university approached the city with a novel offer. It would spend about $615,000 to fully renovate the mostly empty, worn-out basement of the MLK Jr. City Government Center on N. 2nd Street.
The city would be able to use a portion of the space for a new, state-of-the-art emergency operations center. It also would get access to classroom space when not in use and to the lounge, which could be used as a break room. The city would receive the building improvements but no monetary rent from Eastern University during the 10-year lease term.
If approved by council, the project could start immediately and would take less than a year to complete, Bunting said.
The offer furthers an existing relationship with Harrisburg, as the city and the university last year inked an agreement offering city workers and their families a 25-percent tuition discount to attend the college. That partnership also provides city employees with free workforce training.
“This is a substantial investment in the building with resources that we otherwise would have to draw from somewhere else,” Papenfuse said. “It’s true that it is not a typical type of relationship, but Harrisburg does have a unique financial position, given its distressed status.”
There are other benefits, Papenfuse said. It would bring more people downtown, would boost building security, especially after hours, would offer technology upgrades in the building and would help create a “critical mass” of colleges downtown, adding to the existing presence of Harrisburg University, Temple University and Messiah College.
“It’s not just the EOC (emergency operations center),” he said.
Some council members, though, seemed uneasy with the proposal. Councilman Westburn Majors said that a partnership between the city and a Christian-oriented college “just doesn’t sit right with me.”
“To me, there should be a separation of those two things,” said Majors who, added that, otherwise, he understands how the city would benefit from the project.
Joyce Davis, the city’s communications director, said the arrangement does not mean that the city is taking a position on faith-based education.
“We are not endorsing or advocating any one faith,” she said. “It’s simply a business relationship.”
Councilwoman Shamaine Daniels, an attorney, brought up potential liability issues for the city. However, city Solicitor Neil Grover assured council members that Harrisburg’s agreement with Eastern University includes full indemnification, so the city would be protected legally.
“From our view, the city is completely covered,” he said.
Majors said that he would feel more comfortable if there were precedent for such an arrangement, but city officials said they knew of none.
“I think we’re on the front lines of this,” said Papenfuse, who added that he also would favor a public-private partnership that would lead to the renovation of the rundown city Public Safety building next door.
Both Eastern University and the administration had hoped that council would approve the agreement at its legislative session tonight. However, council President Wanda Williams decided to table the resolution until after council’s six-week summer break, which starts tomorrow.
Several council members said they needed more time to study the agreement and perhaps confer with residents.
“This is the first time community members have heard about this,” said Councilman Cornelius Johnson. “I would be interested in that community buy-in.”
Bunting said he was comfortable waiting if the council felt it needed additional time and input.
“I do not want to rush you,” he said. “I want to make sure everything is right.”