Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Major Impact: A unique organization finds itself at a crossroads.

Illustration by Rich Hauck

Back in 2013, Harrisburg had a first hint that its future might be better than its recent past.

Late that summer, the state-appointed receiver released a financial recovery plan designed to return some measure of fiscal sanity to the insolvent city.

Sanity came at a high price.

To pay back creditors, Harrisburg had to monetize two of its most valuable assets, the city incinerator and its parking system, to raise almost $400 million. That was the headline news.

Several other important elements were buried deeper in the “Harrisburg Strong” plan. One called for the creation of a new nonprofit, Impact Harrisburg, which would try to right another wrong created by decades of derelict leadership.

In Harrisburg, it wasn’t just borrowed money that financed such extravagances as museum artifacts, a sports stadium and a waste-to-energy experiment. For years, Harrisburg’s core infrastructure was ignored so that funds could be spent on one man’s fantasy of turning the city into a tourist mecca.

As the mayor dreamed and schemed, Harrisburg’s roads and sewers fell apart.

I remember the first time I drove into Harrisburg, off of I-83. The trip up 2nd Street was like the world’s least fun bumper car ride—vehicles meandering all over the wide road, nearly crashing into each other as the lane lines had long disappeared. I thought to myself, “Can’t this city afford some paint?” Turns out, the answer was “no.”

Impact Harrisburg was meant to be a start in repairing the broken capital city, in the most literal sense.

I bring this up now because Impact Harrisburg is at a crossroads. In 2014, the financial recovery plan seeded the nonprofit with $12.3 million, half marked for infrastructure and the other half for economic development—pots of money designed to help the city play catch-up after years of neglect.

Eight years later, those funds have been nearly exhausted.

Recently, I sat down with several Impact Harrisburg officials to reflect back on what’s been done and where the organization goes from here.

Board chair Gloria Martin-Roberts and vice-chair Doug Hill, as well as Executive Director Sheila Dow-Ford, were pleased with the work done so far. They rattled off a long list of achievements—from street repaving to sewer upgrades to grants that helped keep businesses afloat during the pandemic.

I knew about those projects. We’ve reported extensively on them, and I can see some of the roadwork just by looking out my office window.

But others were more under the radar. For instance, about $4.1 million went to fund projects for community groups like the Salvation Army, the Camp Curtin and East Shore YMCAs and Tri-County HDC for housing development. Other monies paid for playground rehabs, software for city workers and, most recently, a disparity study to determine how the city can offer more opportunity for diverse businesses.

For Harrisburg, these funds were critical, as the city has been cut off from the credit markets for over a decade, unable to borrow money. This would stagnate or sink most cities, but Harrisburg has experienced tremendous redevelopment over the past half-dozen years, including major work to main thoroughfares like 2nd, 3rd, 7th and 17th streets.

Much of this was seeded by Impact Harrisburg, which provided direct grants and, perhaps as importantly, attracted matching funds from other sources.

“We are absolutely on fire over meeting our mission and improving the health status of the city,” Martin-Roberts told me. “And, what I mean by health status, I’m talking about infrastructure and economic development because it all impacts on the health status of our city.”

So, where does Impact Harrisburg head from here? That’s the question at hand, as its initial funding has nearly run dry.

In a nutshell, they’d like to stay in business, focused on economic development. Indeed, the city may need assistance in this area, as its economic development director currently serves just one day a week.

“We want to stay active,” Martin-Roberts said. “We want to stay involved.”

To make this happen, Impact Harrisburg will need to find new funds. Hill mentioned several possible sources, including both private donors and city-controlled monies, such as Community Development Block Grant funds and a slice of Harrisburg’s $48 million American Rescue Plan Act funding.

“We are going back to the city and going out to the philanthropic community and saying, ‘Here’s a remarkably unique need and a remarkably unique position that we can fill,’” Hill said.

If its coffers were replenished, Impact Harrisburg could continue its economic development mission. This might include continuing its small-business grant program, its help for minority and disadvantaged businesses and its focus on training, education and identifying additional financial support for young and emerging entrepreneurs.

“The city is not equipped to do that,” Martin-Roberts said. “I’m not casting aspersions against them. They don’t have the people to do it. We can get it done, and we know we can get it done. It just makes for a healthier community.”

Impact Harrisburg was a novel idea born from a profound crisis.

Over the years, this unique nonprofit has proven its value in identifying critical needs and making a visible difference, whether in normal times or in COVID times. I also like that it employs the talents of some remarkable and dedicated people outside of government who want to continue their service to our community.

As I write this, the city is announcing its plan for American Rescue Plan monies. Ultimately, that’s up to the administration and City Council, with public meetings slated for this month. But a strong case can be made for re-equipping Impact Harrisburg, which has a track record of strategically injecting funds where they’re greatly needed.

Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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