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Editorial: Cities must invest in people to rebound

The midstate’s cities — even Harrisburg and York — heard some positive news last week in Philadelphia.

Every two years, the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia hosts a conference on keeping America’s small cities vital. As one Harvard economics professor explained this year, “Cities are the economic heartland of America.” The way they draw people together spurs innovation, creativity and business for the wider region they anchor.

The theme this year was “resilience.” The goal was to provide perspective and tools to elected officials, businesspeople, academics and policymakers.

The perspective came in a report on the health of 10 cities in the Philadelphia Fed’s region. In the midstate, Lancaster was rated as “rebounding.” Harrisburg and York, despite their deep financial woes, garnered a “coping” rating. Other choices in the report were “declining but stable” (Altoona, for example) and “struggling” — which was reserved for Reading and Chester.

The tools came more in the form of ideas, left to cities to determine if and how to apply them, and some advice on what not to do — such as spending millions on capital projects neither wanted nor needed.

Three ideas — building infrastructure, offering tax incentives and shrinking a city’s footprint — clearly are within government control. The fourth is not, and it is probably the most critical — investing in human capital.

Cities are about providing services, as Lancaster’s Mayor Rick Gray noted during a conference panel discussion. We agree. What happens after the potholes are fixed, the streets are plowed, the parks are mowed and the public safety forces are funded depends on a broad range of people with a personal stake in the community. These include educators, philanthropists, residents, established business owners and entrepreneurs.

Brad Thorne, founder of the Harrisburg-based startup Prize Monkey, seems to be the kind of guy the conference experts had in mind. His Futureland concept (see “‘Futureland’ would give startups edge at Hbg. mall,” page 1) bears watching, because it’s creative, it’s scalable and it’s engaging. The backbone of the plan, which would use vacant space at the Harrisburg Mall just outside the city for tech startups, is to draw the public in to see what’s happening and share the excitement.

Cities, defined as their governments, can’t fix their problems on their own. But by recognizing that fact and creating an environment where people want to plant their own ideas and watch them grow, a city has a stronger chance of turning the tide of decline. Resilience — the ability to rebound from setbacks, to adapt to change — calls for a willingness to admit that answers can and must come from everywhere.

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