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Women taking initiative, top roles at Harrisburg Young Professionals

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In 2014, three women will be at the helm of the Harrisburg Young Professionals organization. At the 20 N. Market Square building, from left, are incoming vice president and president Casey Khuri and Catherine Hoover, with executive director Renee Custer.
In 2014, three women will be at the helm of the Harrisburg Young Professionals organization. At the 20 N. Market Square building, from left, are incoming vice president and president Casey Khuri and Catherine Hoover, with executive director Renee Custer. - (Photo / )

As Harrisburg's recovery shifts from debt clearing to a new comprehensive plan — a directional strategy last updated nearly 40 years ago — one of the city's largest and most influential civic organizations is making a little history of its own.

For the first time, the Harrisburg Young Professionals will have three women at the helm in 2014.

HYP's incoming president is Catherine Hoover, a project engineer at Middletown-based Raudenbush Engineering Inc. One of her vice presidents will be Casey Khuri, a commercial loan officer at Swatara Township-based Metro Bank.

And Renee Custer, the organization's first executive director, will be getting a second year under her belt in that position.

"It's an exciting time for the city and the organization, regardless of leadership," Khuri said.

At its core, HYP has always promoted Harrisburg as a great place to live, work and play. Its city-centric focus helps to maintain and grow a critical mass of young professionals, who, in turn, spark new residential and commercial development.

HYP is credited with helping to carve out more diversity in downtown dining and entertainment because it is keeping commuters in the city longer through its popular sports leagues, social events, the arts, outreach and other committee programming. It also works to incentivize homebuyers through its Home in the City program.

Growing impact

With the Harrisburg Strong Plan moving into a phase of setting new policy that guides growth for decades to come, HYP expects to play a significant role in everything from economic development to city living and beautification efforts.

"We plugged the brain drain. Now we have to grow," Khuri said. "Not specifically the members, but grow our impact on the city."

HYP is currently working with Capital Area Transit and the Modern Transit Partnership on a beautification project at the Market Square Transfer Center. That includes replacement and moving of bus shelters, adding safety pavers, tree removal and the installation of planters, plantings and new lighting.

"My vision going forward is using HYP as a catalyst and conduit for our members to drive economic growth," said Hoover, who sees her background in urban planning complementing what's happening in the city.

It's also helpful that several of the organization's board members and advisers already are key players in the investment community.

"I think my background allows me to come to the table and be caught up to what they are talking about," Hoover said. "We're at a point where community engagement can lead to real progress."

The court-approved recovery plan will transform Harrisburg, said H. Ralph Vartan, CEO of Susquehanna Township-based Vartan Group Inc. Vartan, who developed the mixed-use 1500 Condominium project in Midtown and is a board member, said the plan mirrors HYP's mission.

"The way you measure (success) is people on the sidewalks," he said. "Then you will know the plan has been successful."

HYP members are likely to be more engaged in the community, which makes for a strong community, Vartan said.

The current and incoming leadership said they are focused on improving every aspect of the organization. That includes additional programming and service projects, as well as improving its role as a facilitator in the community.

"If conversations need to be had or we can bring people together to focus on a topic of need, we will," Custer said.

Next steps

Hoover said bigger beautification efforts are in the works.

Growth in the city is there if you look for it, she said. But master planning will be the key to Harrisburg's future success.

"The comp plan is key and seeing a connection to downtown and Midtown and Allison Hill and uptown, having a transportation plan and a zoning plan," she said. "I think some of the new condos we see really speak to our demographic."

She cited some of the more recent residential projects, including Riverview Manor, the 1500, COBA Apartments and Lux. The latter is going up at Third and State streets.

"The next step we'd all like to see is growth in restaurants and retail spaces," Hoover said. "Retail is the final piece of urban planning."

The success of HYP, even in challenging economic times, largely occurs because of the frequent changes in leadership, both at the board level and on committees.

"There are always people with fresh new ideas," Hoover said. "Because of the way the organization is set up, ideas are coming to the top. You get to collaborate and work with other enthusiastic people."

HYP is a strong outlet for people looking to bring ideas to the table and see them executed, Custer said.

"The fact that there are three women in leadership roles is exciting," she said. "It's telling, because that wasn't done intentionally. That's who rose to the top."

And a growing number of women are taking on more responsibility at the committee level, she added: "I think we've grown up in a generation and a culture that we don't consider it as much."

HYP is a platform for any young professional in the city, Khuri said. Whether male or female or from a different cultural background, it doesn't matter.

"It's about young professionals. It's not gender or race specific," she said. "With us, it's having the same common interests and goals."

That common thread allows the organization to develop relationships with new companies and recruit talent to the area, said Meron Yemane, HYP's outgoing president.

"We're giving companies a landing place to push people to explore the arts, sports, social and city living," he said. "That makes companies much stronger."

HYP survey

The Harrisburg Young Professionals demographic is the target demographic for many organizations and decision makers.

Here is what the organization's 2012 civic survey found:

• Most respondents were HYP members and fell between ages 26 and 30; slightly more were men, most were white and single.

• On annual income, one in five fell in either the $35,000 to $44,999 bracket; the $45,000 to $54,999 and $65,000 to $74,999 brackets each tallied 18.5 percent.

• Nearly 60 percent had a bachelor's degree; one in four had a master's degree.

• More than 57 percent were not born in Central Pennsylvania. More than 55 percent said they were renters, with about three-quarters split between living in the city or outside of Harrisburg on the Dauphin County side of the Susquehanna River.

• The main reasons they gave for living outside the city: Proximity to work, crime and safety, and no suitable residence. Those living in the city like an urban setting, their residence and the proximity to entertainment or dining. Work moves and not wanting to raise a family in the city were the primary reasons respondents planned on leaving Harrisburg.

• More than 90 percent drive to work.

• Half volunteered for one or two causes/organizations; 35 percent volunteer one to five hours per month.

• General quality of life in the city scored 7 out of 10 (10 is the best) by 26.5 percent of respondents. The city's potential is vast.

• Most joined HYP because they were referred by a friend or they played in the sports league. Nearly three-quarters intended to renew membership.

• Most wanted to see HYP offer or expand programming in areas of professional development (67 percent) and community outreach (54 percent).

The 2013 HYP survey remains open for anyone interested in providing feedback.

HYP by the numbers

4: Catherine Hoover will be the fourth female president in the history of the Harrisburg Young Professionals. The last one was Nicole Conway (formerly Borda) in 2009. The first was Elizabeth "Bebe" Mullaugh in 2001.

1: This will be the first time in the organization's history where there will be a female president, vice president and executive director. Board secretary Casey Khuri is going to be one of the first vice presidents. Note: Renee Custer became HYP's first executive director last year.

9: There are nine committees in the organization.

15: HYP is wrapping up its 15th year. Its first president was J. Alex Hartzler, one of the five founders.

1,500: Estimated HYP membership today. There is a roughly 50-50 split between men and women.

More about Renee Custer

Age: 24

Current job: Executive director at HYP since 2012; with organization since 2011

Educational background: Bachelor's degree in communication studies from James Madison University, 2011

Do you live in the city? No, Susquehanna Township

More about Casey Khuri

Age: 27

Current job: Commercial loan officer at Metro Bank since 2010; with the bank since 2008

Educational background: Bachelor's degree in business administration, majoring in finance in real estate, from Temple University, 2008

How long have you been active in HYP? Since 2008; currently secretary

Do you live in the city? No, Upper Allen Township

More about Catherine “Cat” Hoover

Age: 31

Current job: Project engineer at Raudenbush Engineering Inc. since 2006

Educational background: Bachelor's degree in civil and environmental engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), 2005

How long have you been active in HYP? Since 2007; currently a vice president

Do you live in the city? Yes, Midtown

Click here to download a PDF file of the 2012 HYP Survey Results.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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