Three years ago, I was told to “lay off.”
That directive came after I had written a column critical of former Mayor Steve Reed, following his guilty plea to theft-related charges.
It didn’t come from anonymous hate mail (I got that, too), but from someone whom I know and respect.
“Enough already,” she said, sternly, looking me directly in the eye. “Steve did a lot for this city.”
Her comment got me thinking that maybe I had judged the seven-term mayor too harshly, a thought I had again following his death in late January.
In official statements and on social media, city officials, community leaders and ordinary folks spoke fondly of Reed, pointing to all he had done through 28 years in office. They also praised his character, though, as a journalist, I’m most interested in his actions and importance as a political and historical figure.
I suppose that my harsher assessment had something to do with my own timing. I came to Harrisburg at the tail end of his lengthy tenure, so didn’t know him well or experience his achievements, but I did experience the fallout.
I didn’t know of Harrisburg before the Hilton and Whitaker Center and Harrisburg University and a revived downtown, all things many credit to Reed’s vision and hard work. But I did know first-hand of the city’s subsequent financial collapse.
In other words, I missed half the story.
Since I cover and write about Harrisburg, it’s important for me to consider the totality of Reed’s service. He was one of the most significant historical figures in Harrisburg over the past century, ranking right up there with Harvey Taylor, with arguably an even greater impact on the city.
So, I’m going to give another go at writing about his legacy, which, as it turns out, isn’t radically different from my first try three years ago. I consider his mayoralty to be a mixed bag—granted, a very impactful mixed bag.
Stephen R. Reed became mayor in 1982, 32 years old, already a veteran politician, having served in the state Assembly and as Dauphin County commissioner. He immediately attempted to turn around a demoralized city that had experienced little but bad news for 30 years.
Arguably, his first big success came a few years later, when his failed attempt to build a hydroelectric dam threw off enough interest from a bond offering to pay for cleaning and building up then-seedy City Island. Other victories followed: a new flagship hotel downtown, a minor league baseball team, an impressive arts/science center.
Reed dreamed big, but his big dreams came with equally big price tags. To finance his ambitions, he turned the city’s utility authority into an investment bank, surreptitiously diverted bond fees to buy artifacts for museums he hoped to build, and burned through hundreds of millions trying to salvage the city’s debt-laden incinerator. If you’re reading this column, you probably know all how it all ended—with a financial collapse practically unrivaled in U.S. history.
When assessing Reed’s place in history, it’s important to look at both ends of his legacy. His successes were huge, but so were his failures. He was not a man of small measures.
Ultimately, I believe that the bad outweighed the good, but that’s because I believe strongly in fiscal prudence and in transparency. Furthermore, I don’t believe government should micromanage the economy, and Reed often treated Harrisburg as a real-life version of Sim City.
However, I certainly understand if you weigh the man’s actions and reach the opposite conclusion. Heck, I walk around downtown Harrisburg daily, and I look up and see the buildings and institutions he helped create. What if those weren’t there?
Reed was an ambitious builder and used the public purse in unorthodox, sometimes troubling ways. Many of his projects were moonshots. Some failed horribly, some succeeded magnificently, and others survived but still struggle today, as does the city government itself.
The ones that have succeeded most had great leaders who built upon what Reed seeded, even when the foundations were shaky. Harrisburg University may be the best example of that. On the other hand, the city school district, which Reed took over and promised to turn around, fared poorly then and even worse since.
If I’m still around in 10 or 20 years, I should revisit this subject again, with another reassessment of Reed’s legacy. When enough time passes and all the bills finally get paid, I may agree with his supporters that, yes, Reed made some mistakes, but, in the end, he was the leader that Harrisburg needed.
Lawrance Binda is co-publisher/editor-in-chief of TheBurg.