The Overlook Mansion on North Front Street stands after 117 years as if it is frozen in time in 1901.
William Reynolds Fleming, a mechanical engineer, built the home for himself and his wife next to the city waterworks. When Virginia Hammond Fleming passed away, she left the property to the Civic Club of Harrisburg, which was founded in 1898 with the mission of beautifying the city and improving civic engagement.
The Civic Club oversaw several citywide improvement projects, including maintaining the public water supply and the upkeep of the local jail. The Civic Club survived through two world wars, when the mansion was used as a supply site for the Red Cross. It remains active to this day.
The organization has been an outlet for generations of private citizens who care deeply about their city and invest their own time, energy and money to ensure their fellow citizens have pristine living conditions.
Almost a century after the Civic Club was founded, five of my colleagues joined me in creating a similar organization. Together we founded the Harrisburg Young Professionals in 1998. This year, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of HYP and are proud to have watched it grow into a thriving organization.
After we returned home from college, my friends and I noticed that the city we once knew for its popular bars and restaurants was becoming run down. The YMCA, the local Presbyterian Church, the Gazebo Room, Lombardo’s and Harry’s Bar, which had been staples of the community, were barely recognizable.
To combat this, as president of HYP in 1999, I focused our group on encouraging hundreds of people to move back into the city and create jobs. Mayor Stephen Reed called for all hands on deck to help bring Harrisburg back to life, and the business community heard the call.
As a real estate broker, I was determined to revitalize the real estate in the city. RSR Realtors was involved in the expansion of Restaurant Row, Market Square Plaza and Capitol Heights residential.
This private-sector stimulus, combined with the signing of legislation by Gov. Tom Ridge in 2000 for the city rescue of the schools and the later implementation of Act 47, catapulted the city onto a healthy pace of economic growth.
Act 47 required Harrisburg to comply with certain recommendations issued by the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, which allowed the ICA to withhold all or part of the city’s revenue if these were not met. It also put a taxing authority in place for an enhanced earned income tax (EIT) and local services tax (LST).
This fall, the General Assembly will be voting on whether the city will be allowed to exit Act 47 while keeping the taxing authority.
Since stepping down as president of RSR Realtors and becoming a state representative for the 87th district, I have continued my work to help the city of Harrisburg come back to life. Although I represent the suburbs of Cumberland County, many of my constituents commute into the capital for work. They are only a portion of the more than 40,000 commuters who work in Harrisburg. I also understand the impact that a capital has on its surrounding neighborhoods in terms of crime rates and real estate value, among other factors.
I want the city of Harrisburg to succeed in the long term. My bill, House Bill 2557, would allow the city to continue its taxing authority while being free of Act 47. This would ensure that no job-killing tax hikes, such as the proposed 100-percent property tax increase and 2-percent commuter tax, would be necessary. Harrisburg would also be more attractive for businesses and investors because it would no longer be an Act 47 municipality once under state receivership.
The city has sold the troubled incinerator and its parking system, and the Harrisburg Water Authority was transferred to Capital Region Water. It has worked to renegotiate union contracts with police officers, firefighters and AFSCME.
While these solutions have aided in ridding the city of its debt, residents have been facing tax increases, especially from the Harrisburg School District.
This is detrimental to a city when 50 percent of the real estate is tax exempt, mostly due to state ownership, and when one-third of its population has salaries less than $30,000. With half of the city’s population near or below the poverty line, we must eliminate the current harsh climate for economic opportunity.
My bill would ensure that the city’s credit rating would improve and that residents, businesses and commuters would be given tax relief.
Scranton and Pittsburgh were able to diversify their tax structures when they were in an economic crisis, and, as a result, have attracted new industries to their communities, including natural gas.
For over a century, the residents and neighbors of Harrisburg worked hard to grow the city. To finish the work of revitalizing it, we must allow the private sector to develop free from heavy regulations and taxes.
As a member of the General Assembly, I have partnered with state Rep. Patty Kim of the 103rd district in helping the city. I have long admired Rep. Kim’s passion for Harrisburg. She has been a crucial advocate for the city and believes that our bill is key to its future prosperity.
The capital of Pennsylvania should be its shining city on a hill, overflowing with commerce and visitors. It has the potential to be an inspiration to the rest of the commonwealth for how to attract businesses and working families.
It is time to let the city be free to focus on how to ease the burdens facing business and property owners. There is no time to waste.
Let’s work together to make Harrisburg fruitful and inspiring again. We did it before and we can do it again, but this time, for good.
Rep. Greg Rothman represents Pennsylvania’s 87th legislative district.