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Harrisburg, Harristown ponder the future of the Strawberry Square arcade

Harrisburg is considering transferring ownership of the Strawberry Square arcade.

If you live in the Harrisburg area, there’s a good chance you’ve strolled through the Strawberry Square arcade at least once—maybe hundreds of times.

Have you ever wondered: Who owns this thing?

It turns out that the city owns it, though that may not be the case for long.

At a recent City Council work session, Harristown Development Corp. made a pitch to transfer the arcade—the elevated walkway that connects Strawberry Square to the Hilton Harrisburg—to the Strawberry Square Condominium Association.

“The public use would remain in place,” said Neal West, Harristown senior vice president and legal counsel. “People would continue to have full use and benefit of the arcade.”

West, who is also president of the condominium association, told council members that Harristown has absorbed the cost of maintaining the city-owned property for decades, but would like a permanent solution for the 66-foot-long enclosed pedestrian pathway.

West explained that the arcade was built in two parts—the first part in 1979 and the second in 1989, with Harristown footing the bill for construction.

The city, as owner, was supposed to pay for the maintenance, estimated at about $70,000 per year, but the city stopped reimbursing Harristown for that expense in the early 1990s, accumulating a debt of $404,000 by 1998. Subsequent agreements relieved the city of that debt and of additional maintenance payments through today.

Moreover, Harristown has invested some $500,000 over the years to reconstruct and upgrade portions of the arcade, West said. And, he said, more improvements are needed now, including HVAC and structural work to even out the temperature in the arcade, which can fluctuate wildly from one area to the next.

“There is a need for upgrades,” he said. “We have estimates anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000.”

In 2015, Strawberry Square became a condominium, co-owned by Harristown and the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority, which has transferred its board seats to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as state workers occupy the majority of office space in Strawberry Square.

If council approves the transfer, ongoing expenses would be split between Harristown and the commonwealth, West said. Because the arcade generates no revenue, yet has expenses, its value is negative, he said.

The arcade extends over N. 3rd Street in downtown Harrisburg.

City council member Ausha Green asked what the city would get from the arcade transfer.

“The benefit to the city would be that they don’t have to pay the operating expenses going forward,” West replied.

Currently, Harristown has a month-to-month agreement with the city to maintain the arcade, so could exit it at any time.

Council President Wanda Williams asked why the city wanted to transfer the arcade at this time.

“What’s the urgency now?” she said. “I’d like more time to delve into this. We just got this tonight.”

Mayor Eric Papenfuse said that Harrisburg’s facilities manager examined the situation, and the administration believes it’s in the city’s interest to be relieved of potential maintenance and upgrade expenses.

“The liabilities associated with maintaining the arcade properly are more than the city is in a financial position to want to bear,” Papenfuse said. “Harristown has the resources and the ability to properly maintain the arcade, and that is a benefit to our residents.”

He added that the city has much better use for its capital improvement funds, such as repairing city hall or the decrepit public safety building next door.

“We have a lot of assets in the city and limited resources,” he said. “We don’t need to be spending it on an arcade, which we are not getting any benefit from at all.”

Several council members wanted assurance that the arcade would remain open to the public if the city no longer owned it.

“It would be treated just like the common areas of Strawberry Square,” West said.

Councilman Dave Madsen said he would collect questions from fellow council members for any additional information they want before putting the issue to a vote.

Council has the option of voting at its next legislative session, which is slated for Feb. 25. If it doesn’t do so, the city and Harristown presumably would extend their month-to-month agreement into March.

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