A mayor and four council members walked into a bar tonight, but it wasn’t the start of an old joke.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse, along with City Council members Ben Allatt, Cornelius Johnson, Dave Madsen and Westburn Majors, fielded questions in a town hall meeting tonight at the House of Music, Arts & Culture (formerly the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center). The forum, which was organized by Capital Region Concerned Citizens and moderated by CRCC organizer Brandon Flood, brought 40 people to HMAC’s upstairs Capitol Room.
Flood said the event was inspired by discussions on a Facebook page called Concerned Citizens of the Harrisburg Community, which counts more than 2,000 members.
“We want to take some of the energy on that page and turn it into face-to-face dialogue,” Flood said.
The wide-ranging discussion was organized in a question-and-answer format, with city officials commenting on topics ranging from blight and crime to minority business participation and housing. Here are some of the highlights.
Flood asked the panelists about the timeline for hiring a new community policing coordinator and the possibility of increasing community policing initiatives in the city. The city’s previous community policing coordinator, David Botero, was reassigned to desk duty and later fired after he was charged with possessing drug paraphernalia in May 2017.
Papenfuse reported that the city has begun interviewing candidates and hopes to select a new coordinator by the end of February. He said that the Police Bureau’s long-term goal is to overcome staffing shortages and develop a community policing division. The bureau currently employs one full-time community policing officer and five officers who were recently trained in community policing techniques through a federal COPS grant.
Johnson also offered an update on the community policing task force that council offered to convene last fall. He said that legislation to convene a task force consisting of citizens, council members, city employees and police representatives was pushed into the new year to make time for other legislative priorities. He said that council hopes to pass a task force resolution later this year, after council members have time to research different models and revise legislation.
Development and Inclusivity
Madsen, chair of the community and economic development committee, shared ideas to get more residents into the workforce. He said that Harrisburg has a 7 percent unemployment rate. The national unemployment rate stood at 4.1 percent in Dec. 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Madsen hopes to start partnerships with Careerlink and the STEP program at HACC, training programs in which participants can learn interview skills, get assistance writing resumes and work with counselors to transition into full-time employment.
“A lot of our residents don’t know about these programs, but, if we can communicate and inform them, we can invest in our residents,” Madsen said.
Papenfuse also affirmed the city’s commitment to partnering with minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses on publicly funded projects. He said that city hall maintains a list of local MBEs and WBEs and encouraged any small business owner to join the list by registering their enterprise with the city.
“We want to make sure all residents are part of Harrisburg’s growth,” Papenfuse said.
The panelists also discussed Harrisburg’s need to attract new residents from outside the city. Papenfuse pointed out that the city has half the population it did in the 1950s.
The mayor claimed that Harrisburg would not be able to sustain its development unless its population grows, and he took the opportunity to assuage fears about creeping gentrification in parts of the city.
“I understand the fear that newcomers will displace old residents, but I don’t think that’s happening in Harrisburg yet,” he said.
Papenfuse noted that some recent development projects in Midtown, such The Millworks restaurant or HMAC itself, revitalized vacant or abandoned properties. Those projects didn’t displace any residents or business owners, he said, but that might not always be the case.
“As the city continues to grow, we will see the redevelopment of buildings that are serving a purpose,” Papenfuse said. “We need to make sure we have affordable housing in all neighborhoods and work to ensure prosperity benefits everyone.”
Allatt added that central Pennsylvania needs to overcome its entrenched parochialism, which emerges locally in the perception that life-long Harrisburg residents resent newcomers.
“There’s a lot of resistance to working together as a region,” Allatt said.