Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Uncertain Decision: Millions more, yet a new federal courthouse seems as distant as ever.

Screenshot 2016-05-26 10.00.02

Illustration by Rich Hauck.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this.

A woman goes on vacation and asks her niece to take care of her beloved cat. Shortly afterwards, the cat escapes out the door, is hit by a car and dies. The distraught girl doesn’t know how to break this news without ruining her aunt’s long-awaited trip.

“Here’s what you do,” says a friend. “When she calls you, tell her the cat’s on the roof, and you can’t get it down. So, when you finally break the bad news to her, she’ll be prepared for it.”

She follows this advice, each day telling her aunt that she still can’t get the cat off the roof. By the fourth phone call, she says that the cat fell off the roof and died, and, indeed, the aunt does take it better than expected.

“Oh well,” the aunt says. “Please take the body to the vet and have him send me the bill.”

Before hanging up, she adds, “Oh, by the way, how’s grandma doing?”

The girl pauses a minute, then says, “Grandma’s on the roof, and we can’t get her down.”

This rather dark joke popped into my head recently after I called around trying to find out what—exactly—was happening with the proposed federal courthouse in Harrisburg.

I began making calls after the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) recommended that the project receive an additional $29.5 million for more studies and preparation work.

In the press, Sen. Bob Casey Jr., Rep. Lou Barletta and Mayor Eric Papenfuse all praised the funding, and most media dutifully reported that the money was the next step forward in the long-delayed effort to build a new courthouse at N. 6th and Reily streets.

But was it?

Something kept bothering me, and that something started with wording contained in GSA’s recently released 2016 courthouse plan that discussed the Harrisburg project. Under the headline, “Feasibility Study for Potential Future Project,” the agency states, “GSA will undertake a feasibility study to determine the best housing solution, appropriate future funding request amount and the project schedule.”

Potential future project? Feasibility study? Best housing solution?

Hadn’t all that been settled ages ago?

In 2010, after a search of many years and many locations, the federal government selected a vast grass-and-asphalt site at N. 6th and Reily streets. It bought the land, cleared it of a few old buildings and designed a 265,000-square-foot courthouse priced at around $161 million.

So, what was left to study and decide?

I posed this question to the major players in this extended saga: GSA, the U.S. Courts and Harrisburg’s congressional delegation. I asked them, specifically—what is to be studied; what is to be decided; and is the government considering alternatives to what everyone around here considers to be a done deal?

No one gave me straight answers to my very clear questions. However, in their vague responses, they each included at least the possibility of other options than a new courthouse at 6th and Reily.

Said the GSA: “Over the past decade, the U.S. Courts have changed their approach to space planning in order to reduce government real estate costs. As a result of this effort, GSA and the Courts will be working together to update their space requirements for Harrisburg, PA.”

Barletta went further, raising the specter that the plan may change considerably, including constructing an annex to the existing courthouse.

“The judiciary and GSA are still determining the best course of action, which could involve a new courthouse or an annex to the existing facility,” said a statement from his office.

Of the major players, only the spokesman for U.S. Courts, Charles Hall, would have an actual conversation with me as I tried to find out what exactly would be studied and if a change of direction were possible.

The upshot from our chat—a feasibility study doesn’t necessarily indicate a new course—but it could.

He, like the others, praised the $29.5 million funding (in addition to the already $26 million spent on the project) as an important step because it kept the Harrisburg project “alive.” But, beyond that, he couldn’t make any promises, saying that, sometimes, things change.

To emphasize that point, he cited the eight courthouse projects currently in line ahead of Harrisburg, all of which, in the current funding round, would receive enough money for construction. Three of those, he said, were scaled back over the years from new courthouses to courthouse annexes.

“It’s fair to say that, for all the courthouse projects right now, there is an imperative to make them as cost-efficient as possible,” he said. “As a result, things that might have been in the original plan, all of the specifics are being re-examined now to see how we can reduce the cost of these.”

To be clear—the U.S. Courts and the GSA would like a new courthouse at 6th and Reily. However, they’re subject to the desires, whims and spending restrictions of some future Congress.

In the meantime, they’re focused not on Harrisburg, but on getting the current Congress to sign off on the eight courthouses and annexes that are fully funded, projects that will occupy them for years. After that, who really knows?

Hall did mention that, with nearly $56 million committed to the project, something likely would be built in Harrisburg at some point. But exactly when or where or in what form, he couldn’t say.

Hanging up the phone, I had an uneasy feeling. I felt discomfort as a taxpayer who hates to see his money flushed, as a resident who cares about this city, as someone who has stared longingly at a big, empty field for six years already. I felt that I was being subtly warned that bad news could be ahead and explicitly told that, if anything is built, it will be years away still.

And then I thought—the Harrisburg courthouse is on the roof, and we can’t get it down.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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