Then in July, following the arrest of former Mayor Steve Reed, he called on the museum to shut down entirely, saying it was a “monument to corruption.”
“That’s classic Papenfuse,” joked my colleague Paul Barker during an episode of TheBurg Podcast. “When you don’t get what you want—ask for more.”
Indeed, escalation does seem to be one of the mayor’s go-to strategies when faced with a setback. But, for me, Papenfuse’s desire to starve the museum of money, even close it, begs the question—what exactly is his motivation?
A lot of folks in Harrisburg seem to think that Papenfuse’s crusade against the museum is part of his war against Reed—what I call the de-Reedification of Harrisburg.
There’s something to that, given that Papenfuse waged a decade-long battle against the alleged wrongdoing and profligacy of the Reed administration, and the museum, arguably, was Reed’s signature project.
The fight over the Civil War Museum, though, is more than that. It’s as much a clash of worldviews and priorities as it is a tussle over a disgraced former mayor and his legacy.
Simply put, Papenfuse lives in the unforgiving world of being the mayor of a poor, under-populated city that struggles to balance its books and deliver decent services to its people. The museum’s board and its allies live in another world entirely—the museum world—in which Harrisburg (Harrisburg!) has one of the best collections of Civil War artifacts on the planet.
So who has the better argument?
If you’re the mayor, you might reasonably see the museum as a source of funds, as the collection, owned but not controlled by the city, is estimated to be valued north of $10 million.
In his world, that money buys a lot of street repairs, light poles, police patrols, trash pickup and other basic services that the city needs but can barely afford. Liquidating the museum’s assets would allow Harrisburg to better provide for its people, which should be the first priority of any mayor. It’s a this-or-that world in which you can fix your streets, maintain your parks and protect your people—or you can have a sparsely attended, pretty museum on a hill.
Papenfuse also sees the museum as an enormous potential financial liability as the city is on the hook for maintaining the building, which it also owns. Meanwhile, it receives just $1 a year in rent, while $300,000 in city hotel tax money goes directly to the museum. From this viewpoint, the city gets all the downside from the museum and little, if any, of the upside.
Then there’s the museum world.
The museum world does not have to deal with an anemic tax base, sinkholes, bumpy roads or crime. It mostly needs to keep the lights on in a single building.
In the museum world, Harrisburg receives tremendous prestige from having a world-class museum, housed in a stunning building, within its borders. Many of the museum’s board members and allies live in the even smaller world of history and Civil War buffs, collectors and experts.
The museum world is not without its economic case, as the board claims the facility contributes $5.7 million to the regional economy a year. The city disputes that figure and, in any case, says much of the benefit falls to suburban hotels, restaurants and attractions.
But that’s another thing about the museum world. It exists mostly as a suburban phenomenon—its leaders well-educated professionals who largely live outside the city, its chief defenders the Dauphin County commissioners.
Two different worlds, two different sets of priorities.
So, that’s where we are today, caught in a no man’s land between the mayor and the board, the city and the suburbs, one man’s past museum fixation and another man’s present budget fixation.
How should this end? While I respect both sides, as a Harrisburg resident, I find myself more in agreement with the mayor. Likewise, your opinion probably depends upon which world more closely resembles yours.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.