Bitter winds. Winter storm warnings. Slush up to your knees.
But here’s something to warm your soul—my annual “top 10” list of Harrisburg news. As usual, I’ve employed a totally unscientific, subjective process to judge what I consider to be the top Harrisburg stories for the year just ended.
10. Mega-Murals: Let’s kick off the top-10 list on a happy note, with perhaps the most delightful thing to happen in Harrisburg in 2017—the Harrisburg Mural Festival. In September, artists came to town from near and far, and, at the end of 10 days, more than a dozen new murals were sprinkled throughout Midtown and downtown. It was a fun, affirming community event the likes of which I hadn’t experienced here before. Speaking of public art, I’d like to give a quick quack-out to another way-cool project, the Downtown Ducks, which offered a bit of needed whimsy amidst the hard surfaces of Harrisburg’s business district.
9. To the Limits: Every year, an issue arises that epitomizes the perennial discord and power struggle between Harrisburg’s mayor and City Council. In 2017, there were several, but an effort by council President Wanda Williams to impose mayoral term limits had to be the most overt. Williams recalled the excesses of seven-term Mayor Steve Reed to justify her ordinance, but most people regarded it as a naked swipe at current Mayor Eric Papenfuse. In turn, Papenfuse said he didn’t necessarily oppose term limits for the mayor, but thought they should extend to council, as well. And, months later, that’s where we stand.
8. Going Up: In November, Harrisburg University offered up an early holiday present when it announced plans to build the city’s tallest building—a 30-story-plus neck-strainer at the corner of S. 3rd and Chestnut streets. The project, currently slated to break ground next year, may include a hotel and conference center, in addition to classrooms and student housing. Downtown saw other development news in 2017, as Harristown Enterprises announced new projects on 2nd Street and continued its transformation of Strawberry Square with the debut of high-quality tenants like Fresa Bistro, Provisions, Freshido and the UPMC Pinnacle medical offices.
7. What’s the Plan? A single story rarely lasts through an entire calendar year, but the saga of Harrisburg’s comprehensive plan has now extended through 2015, 2016 and 2017. The year began with the city dismissing consultant Bret Peters, as relations between the administration and its hired architect reached a breaking point. In an odd twist, it ended with the Planning Commission adopting Peters’ plan as its final working draft. Because the plan still must pass muster with City Council, I’ve already penciled in this never-ending story as part of my 2018 top-10 list.
6. Not a Laugh Riot. By springtime, it looked like 2017 might be a difficult year on the streets of Harrisburg, as the capital city got drawn into the nation’s pro- and anti-Trump drama. Following clashes between factions at one protest, Harrisburg police asked council for $65,000 for new protective, or riot, gear. That got the crowds to council chambers, with most speakers opposing the purchase. In October, council tied the funding to the creation of a new, eight-member citizen task force to advise on police issues. However, as of mid-December, council had not passed a resolution authorizing it.
5. Triple Tragedy: Every year, a few stories in this often-fragile city seem particularly tragic. For instance, the double-murder in November of stepsisters Kaliah Dearing and Natasha Harner was especially horrible and heartbreaking. But arguably no story was more tragic than the triple loss in March of 10-year-old Savannah Dominick, 2-year-old Ashanti Hughes and Harrisburg firefighter Lt. Dennis DeVoe. The girls perished from a house fire in Uptown Harrisburg sparked by a faulty hover board, and DeVoe was killed when his car was T-boned on his way to the fire. Fittingly, the Fire Bureau later retired DeVoe’s badge number and placed his name on the Memorial Wall at the PA National Fire Museum.
4. Reed Plea: Harrisburg’s “trial of the century” was set to start, with the city’s former seven-term mayor and erstwhile savior, Steve Reed, in the dock facing more than 100 criminal counts. Then, poof, it all ended. Reed suddenly accepted a plea deal on 20 counts of receiving stolen property and, a week later, was sentenced to two years of probation. The conviction was cold comfort for those wanting someone to answer for hanging Harrisburg out to dry, driving it the brink of bankruptcy. Back in 2015, the state had charged Reed with nearly 500 corruption-related counts, but most of those were dismissed because a judge ruled that the statute of limitations for prosecution had expired. Following the sentencing, the state and the city declared that, with the criminal case settled, they now could pursue civil charges against the myriad people responsible for the city’s financial implosion. So far, crickets.
3. Election Division: High-stakes elections often bring out the worst in a body politic, and so it was once again with Harrisburg’s mayoral contest. The five-candidate primary race was rather quietly (and often poorly) run until about two weeks before the primary election, when a series of debates finally forced the candidates out from behind their Facebook pages. Then it was all division: race, neighborhood, class and anything else that could be used by challengers to try to divide and conquer. In the end, incumbent Papenfuse had the overall best debate performances and won handily. And, with the Democratic nomination determined, the mayoral election seemed to be all but settled, until . . .
2. Raffle Wreck: In Harrisburg, nothing ever seems resolved. So, candidates lose in the primary, but then often reappear in the general election. This time around, two of the losing primary candidates decided to mount last-minute write-in bids, which seemed rather innocuous and, honestly, pointless, until one of them, Gloria Martin-Roberts, lost control of her campaign. Several supporters decided to mount their own rogue campaign on her behalf, rounding up a bunch of homeless men to distribute flyers supporting the candidate. The men also handed out raffle tickets, which offered a chance to win big prizes just for voting. “Foul!” cried several concerned citizens, who complained to the county elections bureau. A judge, seeing a possible connection between the flyers and the tickets, issued an order to halt the raffle. Over ensuing days, most folks complicit in the strange affair laid the blame on others or denied involvement completely. To quote those New Zealand pop gods, OMC, “How bizarre.”
1. Up and Up: Several years ago, in my year-end “Top 10” list, I remarked that most news items were surprisingly positive, even though the city itself, broke and under state receivership, was a basket case. This year, I have the opposite assessment. Many of my top news items are rather negative, but, in truth, the city had a very good year overall. The budget is balanced, many new businesses opened, re-development continued, the city’s first bike share launched and home sales were brisk. Back in 2012 and 2013, I never could have imagined such a rapid turnaround and bright future for Harrisburg. But, thankfully, here we are. So, that’s my No. 1 story of the year.
Numerous other stories almost made the cut in this news-rich little city. My runner-up list included City Council resignations, the doomed Eastern University deal, the sinkhole solution, the surprising Civil War Museum accord, the delayed (finally begun) 3rd Street project and the Hail Mary bid for the Amazon headquarters.
Wait—did I just finish up an entire year-end news review without once mentioning parking? This is Harrisburg. That can’t be right.
Lawrance Binda is editor in chief of TheBurg.