HARRISBURG—Three years ago, Harrisburg was known throughout the country as a financial failure, with crumbling streets and residents and businesses fleeing to the suburbs.
But the city’s reputation has changed, said Mayor Eric Papenfuse Wednesday during his 2016 State of the City address.
City officials have tackled blight, issued nearly 1,500 new business licenses and brought in millions of dollars in grants to fix streets and sinkholes and to launch redevelopment projects.
The city has a “truly balanced budget” for the first time in decades, Papenfuse said, and has even saved a $10 million “nest egg” to put toward improving city services.
“People throughout the nation now see Harrisburg as a city that has arisen from near economic disaster to sustainable economic recovery,” the mayor said. “I feel confident enough to say that Harrisburg has weathered the worst of the storm. And we are, at last, well on our way to sunnier days.”
The mayor gave his annual assessment of the city’s progress and his vision for its future in a nontraditional way this year.
Instead of addressing a ballroom full of regional business leaders at a downtown hotel, which was the practice for decades, Papenfuse spoke before an audience of city nonprofit leaders at the Camp Curtin YMCA. More than 200 people attended the breakfast event.
In the past, tickets for the State of the City address typically cost $85 for general admission and proceeds went to the chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corporation.
Tickets sold for this year’s address, however, started out at $35. Nonprofit organizations had to sell a table sponsorship or 15 tickets to participate in the event. Participating nonprofit agencies were then reimbursed the cost of those tickets and also will split the proceeds from the event, which came from three sponsors. (PinnacleHealth, Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency and Johnson Controls. Giant Food Stores donated the food.)
Papenfuse met with nonprofit leaders to get their input before his speech, which was titled “Strengthening our city and our region.” He spent the first part of his speech citing the work of specific nonprofits, including Recycle Bicycle, Samarra, and the Latino-Hispanic American Community Center, and thanking them for helping to turn the city around.
The mayor also cited success stories by the city, while giving credit to city council, including opening both city pools for the summer when they previously were shuttered; overhauling the city’s sanitation services and tripling recycling; and the city’s position on the cutting-edge with new energy efficient streetlights.
Wayne Martin, the city’s engineer, was invited to speak last month about the city’s LED conversion effort to nearly 1,000 people at the Illuminating Engineering Society conference. Cities such as Los Angeles then decided to follow Harrisburg’s lead, Papenfuse said.
City officials are addressing long-neglected capitol needs and improving the city’s infrastructure, he said.
“What this means for everyone in this room is that we are well-positioned to rebuild our city, neighborhood by neighborhood,” he said. “We are well-positioned to attract new businesses and new jobs. And we are well-positioned to attract people and keep people here who love Harrisburg and want to call Harrisburg home.”
Overall crime is down in the city, Papenfuse said, although too many young people are still losing their lives to gun violence.
The mayor said his four main issues to focus on during the rest of his administration include: improving public safety, supporting our youth, revitalizing our neighborhoods and spurring economic development.
“All of these priorities are rooted in one main principle,” he said, “keeping our fiscal house in order so we can better serve our residents.”
Among the mayor’s plans for public safety, he said he intends to buy body cameras for the city’s police department along with more stun guns to be available to officers as an alternative to lethal force. He also said he would continue to push to reestablish a school resource officer program in the city schools.
“We also have been active in working with state and county officials to address the issue of disproportionate minority contact with our police,” he said. “We are committed to continuing to work to end the stereotyping and the prejudice that too often victimizes our youth.”
City officials have worked to improve the city’s parks and playgrounds, the mayor said, pointing out a current effort to overhaul Reservoir Park as one example. The city also is demolishing blighted properties and working to help residents remove lead from their homes.
“You may recall I started my quest to lead this city with the mantra, ‘Together, we can!'” he said. “I stand here today and proudly declare, ‘Together, we are succeeding.'”
After his address, the mayor took a handful of questions from the audience about public transportation, bicycle lanes, resources for nonprofits and the possibility of a sports complex for youths.
Kevin Dolphin, who runs a community outreach group known as Breaking the Chainz, said the mayor’s speech addressed most of his concerns, but he wished there could have been time for more questions.
Members of his group wanted to know more about how the city plans to stop guns from getting into the hands of youths, he said, and how nonprofits can get more support from the city to survive.
“We’re out here fighting every day,” said Dorothy M. Scott, vice president of the group. “And we’re not receiving the support we think we should get.”
The mayor this year had recommended against giving Community Development Block Grant money to nonprofits, after debt obligations gobbled up the majority of the funds. Instead, he said the city’s intention is to help them fundraise for themselves.
Papenfuse noted, when answering questions from the audience, that the city planned to refinance its federal housing loans to allow more CDBG money to come back to the community.
He said he also wants to restart the city’s revolving loan fund, which still has $1 million in revenue, but through a well-managed loan-review committee.
No city council members attended the mayor’s speech. At least one school board member, Matthew Krupp, attended as did State Rep. Patty Kim and a representative from Sen. Rob Teplitz’ office.
Police Chief Thomas Carter and Fire Chief Brian Enterline also attended, even though Enterline had spent the early morning hours fighting a fire. Enterline showed up in his work t-shirt and pants, complete with dirt and ashes from the scene.