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Harrisburg mayor sets busy agenda

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Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse reflected last week on his first 100 days in office.
Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse reflected last week on his first 100 days in office. - (Photo / )

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, who stepped into the role following major asset deals under the city's debt recovery plan, wrapped up his first 100 days in office last week.

"I think it's fair to say the pace is even faster than I would have expected," he said. "The intensity of the job is really remarkable. I'm up for it, but it's 12-hour days consistently and you really always have to be on whenever you are out in public as mayor."

The city business owner sat down with the Business Journal to reflect on his new life as a public figure, what he has accomplished so far and what he intends to focus on over the next 100 days.

Investors take note: The plan is heavy on comprehensive plan updates and tools to entice development and grow the local tax base.

Papenfuse also hopes to get City Council on the same page.

"I haven't found that City Council has shared my sense of urgency with regard to a lot of the problems facing the city," Papenfuse said.

Q: Has the pace been fast enough for you, and what has been the biggest takeaway so far?

A: It really is physically a demanding job. At the same time, I’ve had to step into the role of operations manager for the city as well. A large part of what we’ve been doing over the course of the first 100 days is bringing the city up to capacity, bringing in new department heads and leaders and really trying to inspire the workforce.

What is the biggest difference between running a city and running a business?

The size and scale and need to bounce between public works and the police department and economic development, HR questions and then a housing question, all within the course of the same hour sometimes. It really requires a lot of nimbleness. You have to be ready for the unexpected but also the juxtaposition of entirely different issues coming at you at the same time.

What is the most pressing issue or issues you hope to address over the next 100 days?

One of them is the relaunching of the sanitation privatization (request for proposals) process, which didn’t work well last year. We had to get the public works move accomplished within the first 100 days, which was a major accomplishment and a lot of work.

The next issue is to examine the future of the public works department and that really requires determining what we’re going to do on sanitation.

How do you see the comprehensive planning process playing out? How will that help you do your job better, and what might it mean for businesses in this city?

We sent the comprehensive planning resolution down to (City Council) well over a month ago. We still haven't had a hearing on it.

We've also appointed new members to the planning commission and we're really trying to beef that up. We've hired a new director of planning and we are ready to go from the city's standpoint.

The goal is to have City Council officially launch the process, kick it to the planning commission and then have the planning commission meet and work with the city staff to begin a series of meetings. That will happen in the next 100 days. I regret that it hasn't already begun.

We are working on a housing strategy really for the first time for the City of Harrisburg. We've identified condemned properties, we've mapped them, we've put all the redevelopment properties on a grid. We're trying to go with targeted demolition rather than just sort of a reactive approach where we're always overwhelmed with the number of buildings.

We're also internally working on a (City Revitalization and Improvement Zone) development plan for the city. We want to be in the next wave.

The comprehensive plan is what links the internal planning to the public, and it's very important they exist simultaneously, so we can get public input and it's not just city staffers working behind closed doors. It's an opportunity to take our maps out to community meetings and to discuss them and discuss neighborhood's needs, wants and desires.

How big is the demolition list, and what is your administration hearing in regard to redevelopment interests in those sites?

It's 346 condemned properties. We know that number because I actually asked for that number. We pulled it off various internal codes systems and we mapped it on our GIS maps. We have them color-coordinated by state of decay.

Folks want a strategy and they want suggestions. We've had a number of large developers come to us already and say they (would be) interested in a project in the city. Where would we like to see it and what exactly would we like to see? Would we like to see more rental properties, more mixed developments? They've also said loud and clear that the city is going to need to pass a LERTA if we're really going to see the development we all want. We're committed to that.

Can you talk more about the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance, or LERTA, designation and what you would support?

We chose not to push that in the first 100 days. That is a conversation which really has to extend even beyond City Council. It's the school district, which is most important on supporting our economic development plans for the LERTA. The city can do anything it wants, but if the school district doesn't pass a LERTA, it doesn't make a difference.

We have meetings set up with various school board members, superintendent, the solicitor and others, and we're going to start talking about our economic development strategy with them.

Another part of that is a land bank. We'd like to establish a city land bank. That also has taxing implications the school board has to be supportive of. As properties move out of the land bank, there is a period of exemption.

I'm in favor of a 10-year LERTA. The issue really is what the school district will be willing to accept. Hopefully they will recognize an aggressive LERTA is what the city needs to spur development. I'm prepared to make that case to them and to talk about its importance. We need to do it collaboratively.

You've said you're certain there will be accountability over the city's financial situation. The school district is also reportedly under state investigation. What would criminal charges or other legal actions change? How might that put Harrisburg in a better position moving forward?

I think it's more of a healing process that the city needs to go through. There has to be some sort of accounting for what happened. Residents of this city, and the region, have made tremendous sacrifices because of, in many cases, illegal, corrupt, unwise transactions and actions. And yet nobody has been held accountable in any way up to this point. I believe it's a necessary step in moving forward to have that sort of accountability. I think that's true for the school district as well.

Can you talk about how much the city has changed, especially in Midtown, in terms of building community and how you see that progressing in other parts of the city? How do you get more people to invest in city amenities?

I think the real foundation of that is public safety. I believe the city is clearly getting safer. The statistics for the first 100 days of this term are very encouraging. Violent crime is down, gun violence is down. Since the start of the year, we've had 1,900 officer foot patrols, which I think is an impressive thing. If you're a business owner or resident, you see the officers out a lot more and you're hopefully interacting and building up relationships.

We hired some new officers and we're going to hire another new crop of officers before the end of the year. That is starting to build the confidence. Once you've established that, I think you can then begin to put forth economic development strategies, including the LERTA, which I think will be the final catalyst, the spur to action. But even with a LERTA, if we hadn't tackled public safety first, I don't think you would have seen that investment.

Can you accomplish things without those kind of incentives?

I think you will see some development and some investments without the incentive, but you won’t see the major population growth and major tax base growth that we want to see for the city without it. The main issue for Harrisburg is can we expand our tax base and our population. Just because we are abating a portion of real estate taxes doesn’t mean we’re not simultaneously bringing in jobs and new residents and all sorts of others who will be paying taxes and helping support the city.

Given what has occurred with the debt recovery plan and administrative transition over the last four months, how do you think outsiders view Harrisburg right now and where it is headed? What about city residents?

Let’s divide outsiders into two groups. You have the surrounding municipalities, the Central Pennsylvania region. I am amazed at the outpouring of good will and positive well wishes that I have felt from people that are connected in some way to Harrisburg and live nearby. I think they want the city to succeed, they feel that the moment is here and everyone is really excited for Harrisburg.

There is also this larger national and international audience that has been following Harrisburg’s financial recovery. They’ve all been very positive. The city made its general obligation bond payment for the first time in a long while, the city passed out of receivership.

These are major accomplishments — receivership mainly from a democracy standpoint. The city took back the reins of its own governance, which I think was tremendously important. And we were able to do this avoiding bankruptcy, which some said couldn’t be done. That’s not to say the city’s structural deficit isn’t still fragile and problematic and we don’t have issues. We have resolved the major cataclysmic long-term debt issues in a way that I think was very innovative, very collaborative, bipartisan, very fair.

I think city residents are really eager for this outside investment to come and for us to really fulfill the promise we’ve had for a long time. I think that they are always very interested in accountability. Another major success of the past 100 days has been the fact we are cooperating as a city now really aggressively, for the first time, with all the various investigative authorities to make sure that we do have accountability. It’s real and it’s happening. There is also the civil side of things, which is being managed through the coordinator’s office.

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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 jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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