Recently, I ran into an architect friend during my weekly shopping excursion to the Broad Street Market.
Naturally, we got into a conversation about Harrisburg and began to talk about the progress the city has made over the past 10 years—this and that building redeveloped; this and that business opened.
I made the point that, despite this improvement, Harrisburg, in my opinion, hadn’t yet reached a “tipping point.”
“What would constitute a tipping point?” he asked.
A good question for sure, and I later emailed him my response.
A tipping point, I wrote, will be when the city begins to attract outside investment—when responsible, quality developers, investors and business people size up Harrisburg and decide it’s a good place to put their money, a place where they can get a decent return on their investments. Assessing the situation, I didn’t think that had happened here yet.
Coincidentally, a few days later, I learned about a new book by urban planner Alain Bertaud entitled “Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.” In it, Bertaud argues that bottom-up market forces should drive how cities develop more than top-down, central-planning efforts.
Of course, I immediately thought of Harrisburg.
During the Industrial Revolution, Harrisburg grew quickly because it was a center of population, and companies needed to put their operations where the labor and infrastructure were. The city then fell apart with the collapse or relocation of the very industries that caused the boom—steel, railroads and other manufacturers.
Since the 1960s, the city government has tried numerous initiatives to revive Harrisburg. Former Mayor Steve Reed was the ultimate pump-primer, attempting to revitalize the city through public monies, massive amounts of debt and no end of creative accounting.
Bertaud would take issue with Reed’s heavy-handed approach. He believes that it’s best for a city government to set the stage to attract private investment by competently performing core services—trash pickup, road maintenance, etc.—not serving as the principal economic or planning force itself.
“I’m not going to make many friends for saying this, but a mayor is essentially a glorified janitor,” he told the Atlantic’s CityLab website. “His or her first job is to maintain the quality of infrastructure and services as the city organically changes. This focus on ‘a vision’ emphasizes top-down control, when the job of a mayor should really revolve around indicators that emerge from the bottom up.”
In this, I mostly agree. A hundred small businesses mean a hundred small experiments in what people value, what they will buy, what services they’ll consume. The end result should offer a strong indication of what will work and what won’t, what’s sustainable and what isn’t, in a city.
In my view, a municipal government has an important role to play in setting broad parameters to ensure public safety, maintain infrastructure and encourage responsible development, but not to the point of micromanaging the local economy or serving as a prime economic force.
Let’s return to Harrisburg.
About a decade ago, the city government, in financial free fall, was removed as a key economic player. Nonetheless, Harrisburg has enjoyed a steady, substantial revival. What happened?
I believe that several factors have contributed. First, people, in general, have returned to cities for restaurants and nightlife, if not to live. Secondly, the city, under the current administration, has focused, appropriately, on the basic blocking and tackling of municipal governance (though I’m pretty certain Mayor Papenfuse would object to being called a “glorified janitor”).
Even Reed deserves some credit, though I offer it grudgingly. He helped plant seeds for redevelopment, at least downtown, even if his top-down, ends-justify-the-means approach led to vast overspending, mountains of debt and a profound, historic financial crisis.
Most important in this city’s redevelopment, though, is this—the local, private sector stepped up.
Locally based developers, businesspeople, restaurateurs and shopkeepers saw opportunity when outside interests did not. The list is so long that I hesitate to single out any particular project for fear of leaving out others. But the nearly desolate city I encountered 10 years ago has abundant life again, due almost entirely to Harrisburg-area people caring for this city, risking what they had and taking a big chance on it.
Having said that—local people and local capital can’t do it all. A larger, citywide redevelopment is simply too massive of a project. Since the 1950s, Harrisburg has lost nearly half its population, and, while I don’t expect the city to push 100,000 residents again anytime soon, it easily can accommodate another 10,000 or 20,000, given its large swaths of empty land. Doing that, however, will almost certainly require outsiders to come in, kick the tires, and decide that, yes, they can get a decent return by investing in Harrisburg.
More people then would bring in more business, more jobs, more activity and more tax dollars for better services. A more vibrant local economy would offer even greater opportunities for local people to open businesses, find employment and even do their own development projects. This virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle would indicate that Harrisburg, after 60 years of contraction and stagnation, finally has reached a tipping point.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.