Back on a chilly weeknight in mid-February, I sat among a few hundred others at the annual meeting of Harrisburg Young Professionals.
TheBurg was there in force because we had been nominated for one of HYP’s annual awards—namely, the “community engagement” award.
I bring this up neither to boast nor complain (we didn’t win) but because of what I saw around me.
Sitting in the auditorium of the State Museum, I felt delightfully ensconced in a type of ad hoc club—one that I definitely wanted to be a member of (sorry, Groucho).
I had tremendous respect for the people surrounding me because they’d accomplished so much.
Blake Lynch, who’s made it his mission to improve outreach between the community and the city’s police bureau, was in our category. So were the good people from Friends of Midtown, led by Annie and Andy Hughes, who spent two years organizing, raising funds for and building Harrisburg’s first public dog park.
Sitting right in front of me was Meghan Jones, co-founder of the HBG Flea, and, right in front of her, the young folks who organized HUE Fest, Harrisburg University’s block party and e-sports tourney. Off to the right sat Sara Bozich and her contingent from Harrisburg Beer Week, an event-rich celebration of local craft beer, and, in front of her, Andrea Grove and the people of Elementary Coffee Co.
All were nominees for various community and business awards.
Then, on the stage was keynote speaker Amma Johnson of the AMMA JO boutique and new HYP President Adam Porter, who has co-founded two city businesses, st@rtup Harrisburg and Provisions grocery store.
And sitting right next to me was TheBurg’s own Megan Caruso, a 2018 HYP award-winner for co-founding the Harrisburg Mural Festival.
Wow, what a group!
In recent years, these folks have helped transform Harrisburg with new events, new products, new businesses and a new energy. When TheBurg began, 10 years ago, none of this existed.
And 2019 promises more of the same. At least four Broad Street Market food vendors are expanding to storefronts on or near 3rd Street (Knead, Urban Churn, Elementary Coffee and Radish & Rye), and another HBG Mural Festival will paint the town for 10 days starting in late August.
But all this has at least one guy (me) wondering—what comes next? What other great ideas are out there? Harrisburg has come a long way in a short time, but there is still much to do to complete this city’s transformation from post-industrial poster child to shining city on a river (this time, apologies to Ronald Reagan).
When people talk to me about what Harrisburg most needs, the conversation often turns to better schools and more and better housing. I agree. However, those two issues seem so large, the problems so overwhelming, that they can be a formula for inaction. Since we, as individuals, can’t seem to do much about these, why not just crack open another beer and watch more “Judge Judy?”
Individual action is exactly what’s needed. America’s cities have improved largely due to the cumulative effect of countless small actions by ordinary citizens, just like we’ve already seen here. And, just like in Harrisburg, many of these cities, unfortunately, still have huge housing problems and underperforming schools.
I’ll start the conversation.
Harrisburg needs retail. Duh, right? In Harrisburg’s hierarchy of needs, more and better retail often ranks right up there behind better schools and housing. Retail is a tough nut, but, heck, I’m a guy who started a print magazine—I never said it would be easy. Looking at other cities, specialty shops and boutiques seem to be the type of retail that can work in an urban environment, though stores typically need to be concentrated to create critical mass in an attractive, walk-able area.
Harrisburg needs community assets. The dog park is a perfect example of a community asset that people long said was needed—and then a few intrepid pooch-lovers made it happen. A farmers market on Allison Hill could be another great community project, and Riverside desperately needs a gathering place, such as a café. Speaking of gathering places, I would love for the city to do something useful with its warren of desolate alleys downtown. Many cities have created vibrant pedestrian zones, event spaces and shopping areas from underused, well-located alleys, just like those around 2nd Street.
Harrisburg needs attractions. The city can’t afford grand building projects, such as museums, nor would I ever suggest one. But smaller attractions (the HBG Flea, Beer Week, Mural Fest) have proven to be big winners. How about a multi-weekend Christmas market on City Island, more food-focused events or better, more frequent use of the plaza at the Broad Street Market? The state could even throw us a bone by opening up the old Archives building (once emptied) as an observation tower or encouraging better use of the vast, empty plaza behind the State Museum—talk about an underused asset.
Harrisburg needs people. Most of all, Harrisburg needs people. It needs more people to live here, visit here, shop here—bringing their checkbooks with them. This situation has improved immensely from 10 years back, when I often felt that I was the only person walking down 3rd street. Still, city businesses would benefit greatly from more foot traffic and more customers.
I would like to close out this column with a disclaimer. Naturally, these ideas are mine alone, a little spit-balling exercise to get the discussion started. What are yours? I would love to know. And, most importantly—like Amma and Annie and Meghan and Adam—are you ready to make them happen?
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.