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Editorial: Trusting to luck no way to get redevelopment moving

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The City of Harrisburg got a lucky break with the partnership between HACC and GreenWorks to move a stalled housing project forward.

Harrisburg-based GreenWorks Development plans to finish the former Capitol Heights townhouse development in Midtown as part of an exclusive student housing agreement with the community college. A project that has languished for several years is now slated for completion by Aug. 1. The initial units will house 26 students, but the project could end up accommodating about 400.

That's a win for GreenWorks, for HACC and its growing student body, for the neighborhood and for the city, which will see the improved property stay on the tax rolls. For City Hall, though, it's another example of progress despite, rather than because of, leadership.

Harrisburg's Lerta program — that's Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance — was one of few incentives remaining to the broken city to encourage development, but it expired more than a year ago. Lerta provides property tax abatements on redevelopment projects, but the city, the school district and Dauphin County all must agree to surrender some of that revenue for as long as 10 years in hopes of long-term, sometimes less tangible gains.

Typically, Lerta incentives are predicated on job growth. A company takes advantage of tax incentives to relocate or expand, promising in return to add employment. Residential development is vital to the health of declining cities, however. It attracts tax-paying businesses — retail, restaurants, entertainment venues, professional services. Stopping population decline also can preserve federal funds.

But the city and county locked horns last year over a proposed new Lerta plan that would have permitted abatements over seven years — and to date there still is no ordinance on the horizon.

Given the city's dire financial situation and the school district's sky-high costs per pupil, it can be easy to argue against giving up any dollar of tax revenue. Without Lerta in some form, though, the property tax base will never grow. The cost of filling vacant lots, reviving empty buildings and restoring rundown homes exceeds the resulting market value of properties.

We're big proponents of public/private partnerships for doing jobs that too often suffer in the grip of government. But this is one area where local officials need to step up and own their responsibility to spur local development. Gambling that luck can rebuild a city in decline is unacceptable.

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