With the flip of the calendar, most people turn their focus to the year ahead, making resolutions and plans for the next 12 months.
Not this guy.
Each January, I use this space to review what made headlines in the year just ended. So, without further delay, here’s my look into the rearview mirror, a wildly subjective ranking of the top 10 local news stories of 2019.
10. So Many Murals
Historically, I’ve kicked off my annual top-10 list with a good news story—so why stop now? Last year, Sprocket Mural Works mounted its second Harrisburg Mural Festival, bringing world-class muralists into Harrisburg during the first 10 days of September. The result: big art, beautiful art, permanent art. Not long ago, a stroll up 3rd Street was a dull trek indeed, but now there’s so much to see, admire and Instagram. Who’s up for a selfie?
9. Going Up
Harrisburg has seen precious little new construction in many years, ever since the Reed administration’s creatively financed downtown projects. That’s now changing as a new federal courthouse rises on Reily and N. 6th and, a mile or so down the road, the 17-story Harrisburg University tower gets going. Last year, Harristown announced that it would like to join the party with a new office building on Market Street. However, it appears that this addition to the city skyline remains on the drawing board as the company awaits an anchor tenant.
8. Closing Time
In 2018, the Susquehanna United Methodist Conference announced it would close most of its churches in the Harrisburg area and consolidate congregations. Then, last year, it actually happened, with six churches hitting the market at the same time. You can add that inventory to several other churches, a couple of firehouses and a few school buildings, creating a mass of institutional properties for sale all at once. Brewery? Art space? Community center? What says you, Harrisburg?
7. In the Zone
Here’s how much of a city nerd I am—I love me some zoning (and some planning!). Variances, special exceptions, I can’t get enough. Seriously, land use interests me greatly, sometimes because there’s a fascinating underlying issue, but mostly because it typically means building, renovation and development. Planning and zoning issues really hit the news late in the year after a company called Seven Bridges Development asked the city to rezone a prime swath of Midtown Harrisburg, with an eye towards constructing mixed-used buildings. Soon after, the city itself introduced an ordinance to allow greater density in most residential zones. Both ordinances were later withdrawn, but they’re not dead yet. Watch for these planning and zoning issues to hit the burner again in 2020.
6. Off-Off Year
The 2019 primary election came in hot, with interest way up for the usually sleepy off-off-year contest. The campaign was marked by numerous debates with sizeable crowds, especially for the five contested school board seats. Residents responded, voting for accountability by tossing out all the school board incumbents. However, by the time November’s general election rolled around, the cause had lost its mojo, as, in the interim, state receivership had stripped the board of most of its power. It now will be interesting to see, for 2020, if Receiver Janet Samuels involves the new, reform-minded board members or continues to rule by decree.
5. 3rd and Done
What’s up with 3rd Street? Over the last few years, residents and readers have asked me that question again and again. Their concern is understandable, as the 3rd Street corridor project has taken much longer than expected. But, finally, it’s finished—milled, paved and striped. Some of you may have even grown to like the bump-outs (or maybe not). In any case, I consider 3rd Street just a warm-up for a question I expect to be asked during 2020 (and 2021 and maybe 2022): what’s up with 2nd Street?
4. Road Gluttony
In editorials, I’ve often criticized PennDOT for sitting on its collective hands while cars crash and pedestrians get picked off on its roads in Harrisburg. But, this year, the state transportation agency showed that it can be equally obtuse when it decides to take action. In a scheme that only Robert Moses could love, PennDOT proposed doubling the footprint of I-83, which would further devastate south Harrisburg, already cut to ribbons by roads and ramps. The city fought back with a consultant’s report that recommended modifying the plan to ease the negative impact. Some Harrisburg officials claimed that PennDOT was listening, but, as past is often prologue, I remain skeptical until shown otherwise.
3. Fiscal Fortune
Over the years, Harrisburg finances have been the most consistent topic on this annual list. I believe it’s made my top-10 each year since 2011, when I started the ritual. However, whereas the city’s fiscal situation was once a bad (OK, horrible) news story, it’s now verifiably good news. In 2019, the city again ran a substantial budget surplus and, in June, finalized a five-year financial plan with the state-appointed Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. Looking ahead to 2020, Harrisburg plans to use its surplus to boost pay for police officers and to pay down debt. It also expects to exit Act 47 this year, finally shedding the moniker of “distressed city.”
2. Water Everywhere
News-wise, I once regarded Capital Region Water as something of a backwater (pun intended)—until, suddenly, it wasn’t. In the spring, I heard rumors that the water/sewer authority planned to implement a new stormwater fee to help fund its 20-year plan to drastically reduce pollutants into area waterways. Then CRW briefed me on the proposal. Then the mayor, in response, told me he might sell the whole darn water system. Then all hell broke loose. For the next two months, upset residents urged the city not to privatize the water system. In a surprise ending, the parties suddenly de-escalated and agreed that a stormwater fee would be imposed but not until July—and that privatization was off the table. So, heading into 2020, there seems to be peace in the (Susquehanna) valley.
1. School Daze
In recent years, I’ve struggled with what subject should rank as my No. 1 news story of the year. Not this time. Without question, the biggest local story of 2019 was the unceasing tumult in the Harrisburg school district. The year began with the appointment of a controversial district solicitor, proceeded with city voters giving the sitting school board the heave-ho and culminated with the June takeover of the district by the state. Since then, the news tempo has moderated, as the state-appointed receiver has ruled essentially by decree. However, a November financial update, which revealed a substantial budget deficit, again underscored the prior administration’s profound dysfunction.
As I said above, this list is my own subjective ranking of the local news for 2019. How subjective? Apparently, very much so, as none of these stories were among our most read online, as judged by readers voting with their clicks.
What were the most popular? Here are TheBurg’s top-five, most-read online (not necessarily magazine) stories of 2019:
5. A January online feature that Elementary Coffee would build out a new, brick-and-mortar location on North Street.
4. A May story on the sale of H*MAC.
3. A November story about major redevelopment plans for the old Bishop McDevitt building.
2. A September feature about the closing of a homeless camp on Cameron Street.
1. A May story on the sudden death of Naed Smith, the long-time manager of the Catholic Worker House on Allison Hill.
So, here we have a business story, a couple of development articles, a community feature and, basically, an obit—not a single wonky city government story among them. Oh, heck, what does your editor know anyway?
Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.