Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Steve and the City: A final assessment of Harrisburg’s “Mayor for Life.”

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

It’s complicated. Very complicated.

That may best describe Harrisburg’s relationship status with its former mayor for life and now-convicted felon, Stephen R. Reed.

Following Reed’s recent plea deal on 20 counts of theft-related charges, the conversation began once again about the legacy of the man who served for nearly three decades as the city’s chief executive.

Reed’s judge, the Hon. Kevin Hess, didn’t hesitate to share his personal opinion with the courtroom.

“He revitalized the city of Harrisburg in ways clearly visible to anyone who bothered to look out the windows of this courthouse,” said Hess, paying tribute to an admitted felon who he was about to sentence for his crimes.

So, was Reed a mayor of great vision who singlehandedly revived Pennsylvania’s dying capital city? Or was he a financially reckless dictator who drove Harrisburg headlong into a ditch?

Personally, I tend toward the second explanation because, as I stated once in another column, leaving a city you ran for 28 years in grave financial distress, essentially bankrupt, forced into receivership, is pretty much the definition of failure. To me, that ends the argument.

However, even I can’t ignore the physical legacy that Reed left behind: Harrisburg University, Whitaker Center, the Civil War Museum, the Hilton, restaurant row. These happened on his watch—several were basically his ideas—and there’s no denying that.

That said—what marks a successful project? Is it the initial idea? The launch? Or is it the ability for that project to carry on year after year, to grow, to become institutionalized in a community?

For an example, let me discuss a project that’s especially close to my heart—TheBurg.

About a decade ago, two guys had an idea, and, well, everyone has some crazy idea for a business, right? Maybe it’s a community magazine, but maybe it’s a restaurant or a shop or a new school. I can tell you that the idea is the easy part, the most fun part.

Next come the plan and the financing. That’s harder, but, if you’re determined, you can probably jump those hurdles, too. We used our own cash—and seriously underestimated how much capital we needed to make TheBurg sustainable. Reed used everyone else’s—and, likewise, severely underestimated how much capital he needed.

So, in January 2009, after much planning and our own money at stake, we launched TheBurg with three strikes already against us. We began a print publication as print was declining (strike one); as the Great Recession reached its frightening depth (strike two); and in a city itself in financial free fall (you’re out!). At that time, “shorting” TheBurg (betting against us) would have been the smart move.

However, we’ve succeeded far beyond my expectations. Sure, there were major hiccups along the way, but we were able to make our project work with continual hard work, a talented staff, solid leadership, community involvement, a bit more capital and maybe some good luck.

To me, this is what gets lost when someone credits Steve Reed for what downtown Harrisburg has become. He may have set the wheels in motion in some cases, but the truly hard, day-to-day work fell to people like Eric Darr, Michael Hanes, Brad Jones, Tom Scott, Steve Weinstock, Juan Garcia, Nick Laus, Qui Qui Musarra, Staci Basore and many others. They’re the ones who deserve the real credit for making downtown successful.

Along the journey, they’ve had their own version of TheBurg’s “three strikes,” including the city’s financial crisis, skyrocketing parking rates and years of skewed, harmful press coverage. In several cases, Reed’s crazy financial schemes proved themselves to be major burdens. Imagine starting a project under such a load of debt that it’s hard to understand your obligations, much less pay them—yet still succeeding. Now, that’s leadership!

So, looking at Reed’s legacy, I don’t want to dismiss his contributions out of hand. He had some successes. Of course, to make an honest assessment, you also have to examine the opportunity costs involved (how many roads could have been paved and pipes laid for some $18 million spent on artifacts?), as well as his many failures (everything from three abandoned museum projects to the never-built city gateways to the Verizon Tower bond insanity). And then, my God, there’s the broken-down, leveraged-up city incinerator. Talk about an unmitigated disaster.

In the end, I simply can’t get beyond Reed’s financial destruction of the city and the school district, which both needed state intervention to survive. Is that success? In defending my position to Reed supporters, I’ve often asked them what they could have done with the essentially blank check that Reed had, with the $1 billion or so in debt that he and his cohorts piled on the city and the school district. For that money, shouldn’t tiny Harrisburg be in far better shape than it is, with solid roads, sewer, safety and schools?

There’s an old saying—I’m sure you know it—that a hungry person may order too much because his eyes are too big for his stomach. That’s rather how I feel about Steve Reed. He had a raging desire to impose his solutions on Harrisburg, remaking the city in his image and indulging his own appetites in the process. However, he had very limited financial ability to make it happen. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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