Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Speeches & Shovels: After years of delays, officials break ground for new federal courthouse in Harrisburg.

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (middle) and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse were among the officials at today’s groundbreaking for the new federal courthouse.

“I was giving up hope.”

“Will it ever happen?”

“A long road.”

Under a large, white tent set up in a field at the corner of N. 6th and Reily streets, a succession of federal and local officials described an arduous, two-decade-long journey that led to the groundbreaking today for a new federal courthouse in Harrisburg.

Mayor Eric Papenfuse joined three area congressmen, a couple of judges and several federal officials in a ceremonial groundbreaking at the four-acre site, where the $194 million courthouse will rise over the next 3½ years.

Papenfuse reflected on the meetings he attended years ago as a private citizen, when numerous sites were suggested and then rejected for the new courthouse. Finally, people settled on an unlikely patch of ground across the street from the Bethesda Mission.

“Fourteen years ago, I participated in those public meetings, in those visioning sessions,” he said. “A lot of sites were considered. Eventually, it was decided to put the courthouse here. It was a site that was slightly out of the region’s comfort zone.”

But the battle didn’t end there. After the 2010 site selection, the project languished, unable to get funding from Congress. But, eventually, the area’s congressional delegation turned up the heat, leading to a full appropriation in the 2018 federal budget.

“It was too long in coming, but God serves those who are patient, right?” said Rep. Scott Perry, who represents much of the city in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In fact, construction machinery was already on site today, as site preparation and utility work were set to begin. Actual construction of the 243,000-square-foot building isn’t expected to start until early next year, with a completion date estimated for the fall of 2021.

The 11-story federal courthouse will provide eight courtrooms, 11 judges’ chambers and 42 interior parking spaces. Following relocation of workers, the federal government plans to sell the current Ronald Reagan Federal Building at N. 3rd and Walnut streets.

An artist’s rendering of the new federal courthouse in Harrisburg.

Rep. Lou Barletta, whose district includes a small portion of Harrisburg, recalled the day in 2015 when the project was added to the federal courthouse priority list.

“It’s been a long road, but one worth the fight,” he said. “Our persistence has finally paid off.”

A keynote address by Hon. Christopher Conner, chief judge for the U.S. Middle District of Pennsylvania, capped off the hour-long groundbreaking ceremony.

“Many of you did not believe this day would ever arrive,” he said, reiterating the point made by every speaker before him.

Perhaps the only people not happy today were those who wanted to witness the long-time-in-coming occasion, but were turned away. This included some Harrisburg residents, people with significant investments in the area and, notably, members of Right Site Harrisburg, which, for years, advocated and agitated for the selection of the site at N. 6th and Reily streets.

If your name was not on the invite list, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was performing security checks, turned you away.

Inside the tent, several speakers, including Conner, mentioned that they expected the courthouse to help revive the area. More than a century ago, the neighborhood was built largely for working-class, railroading families, who lived in small houses on small lots. It later became blighted, and, over the years, most of the houses were torn down.

Papenfuse pointed to projects like 1500 Condominium, Café 1500, the courthouse and the planned state Archives building as the first signs that the area is coming back.

“This is a transformative project,” he said, using the occasion to put in a funding pitch for his next priority—a bridge the city wants to build over the railroad tracks in Uptown Harrisburg.

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