The whispers began well before the official opening last month.
Hmm . . . do you think Harrisburg will support this place? Can it survive here? Will it last longer than a month, a year?
It seemed too hip, too different—maybe even a little radical. Too—should I say it—nice? Sure, it might work in Philly or Pittsburgh or D.C., but certainly not here in dumpy old Harrisburg.
In this case, I’m talking about Provisions, the snug, urban-style grocery that opened its doors downtown in Strawberry Square. But it could equally apply to a bunch of other businesses that have started over the last decade.
A huge, independent bookstore on a forlorn block in Midtown? No way. A vast arts center in a dilapidated wreck of a building? Yeah, right. An upscale French bistro? Ha!
I refer to Midtown Scholar, H*MAC and Rubicon, respectively. But it could equally apply to so many other places that have opened in recent years: Little Amps (Harrisburg wants cheap coffee); the Millworks (too artsy, too pricey); Note Bistro (doomed location); Zeroday ($6 pints??); LUX, Union Lofts, Flats at Strawberry Square (too big-city, too expensive).
All have proven the haters and trolls wrong. They are still in business. Most are thriving.
The armchair critics also roared over the new Harrisburg Bike Share. But it had about 500 sign-ups in its first month in operation, according to sponsor Communities in Schools PA. The sturdy white bikes with the front baskets are now a common sight along the riverfront and City Island. Chalk up another success.
Therefore, I’m calling time on “old Harrisburg.” This is the Harrisburg with little more to offer its residents than cut-rate goods, unhealthy food and substandard housing. This is the Harrisburg owned by people who flee each night to the suburbs, snug in subdivisions where their blighted buildings and dangerous bars would never be tolerated. This is the Harrisburg with an inferiority complex, where anyone hoping for better is shouted down as an outsider or an idiot.
Of course, I realize that change, as is its nature, is distributed unevenly across the city, with some neighborhoods progressing and others not. But we need to realize—simply because it’s a fact—that Harrisburg’s economy has changed. Over the past decade, it’s deepened and diversified, and it should no longer surprise anyone that the city can support nicer and, yes, sometimes more expensive goods and services.
A couple of years ago, a friend told me that he was thinking about opening a business and asked me what I thought. My advice was this—go higher end. By higher end, I didn’t mean Gucci or Givenchy. I meant “mass market nice,” something a notch or two better than conventional wisdom in this town seemed to believe would work.
I reached this conclusion not based on my own personal likes or aspirations, but by looking around at what was already succeeding: Café Fresco, Stage on Herr, Suba, Cork & Fork, Federal Taphouse. “Something better” seemed to be where the market was moving in Harrisburg. I told him that that’s what we did with TheBurg—and it worked for us, too.
In contrast, you know what’s not working? People who treat the city like it’s still old, ramshackle Harrisburg, who seem stuck in the past. In the decade I’ve been here, countless convenience stores, cell phone resellers and used goods shops have opened and closed just along 3rd Street in Midtown. It simply doesn’t seem to be a successful business strategy any longer.
I also urged my friend to heed what I call the “three C’s” of success: capitalization, competence and commitment. As a small business owner and enthusiast, I’ve seen even good ideas flop due to owner malpractice. I told him that, if he chose to open a store, he had to ensure that he was well capitalized, deeply understood his product and business and was willing to work 12-hour days (he wasn’t and didn’t).
So, here’s to Provisions, Harrisburg’s newest small business. It’s a little funky, a little urban, a little fun. And it offers a completely different, superior food-shopping experience for anyone accustomed to the numbing, cold sterility of the suburban supermarket. May it have a long, long life!
Lawrance Binda is editor in chief of TheBurg.