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Harrisburg groups work together to better capital city

Grassroots initiatives led by Harrisburg businesses are under way to boost capital city promotion and beef up community security and beautification efforts.

In April, a public meeting was held to discuss the idea of forming a Harrisburg Midtown Improvement District. In the months since, members of an advisory committee have held additional meetings to establish the framework for the district, which was drafted under the state’s Neighborhood Improvement District Act.

The primary objective has been to increase public safety in the Midtown area of the city, said Eric Papenfuse, owner of the Midtown Scholar Bookstore and chairman of the advisory committee.

The plan calls for hiring up to eight extra-duty security units per week at a projected cost of $568 per unit to patrol the neighborhood, which covers Front to Seventh streets and Forster to Maclay streets.

To pay for the district, a special assessment would be levied on all designated property other than tax-exempt parcels.

The idea is for single-family property owners to pay one-tenth of 1 percent and commercial owners one-fifteenth of 1 percent of their assessed property value, Papenfuse said. That amounts to about $60 per year for residential properties and $90 for commercial.

There also is a class of nuisance properties in the proposal. Those owners would be hit with a fee of 2 percent of assessed value as a way of controlling “blatantly uncaring” property owners, Papenfuse said.

Forty percent of property owners would have to vote against the plan for it to fail. Every parcel owner gets one vote, so a business owner with five parcels would have five votes.

There are 3,161 total voting properties in Midtown, including 367 commercial properties. The 40 percent objection threshold would equate to 1,264 votes, according to the draft plan.

If approved, City Council would have to sign off on the proposal. Papenfuse said he is hopeful the approval will occur this year so the district is in place by Jan. 1.

“This is not just a business improvement district or about street cleaning,” he said.

If the district is established, public funding opportunities would be available to it, including Elm Street funds for improvement projects through the state Department of Community and Economic Department.

Part of the goal would be to have the district serve as the overarching nonprofit to bring together the various neighborhood groups, Papenfuse said. That could increase efficiency and serve as a clearinghouse for all neighborhood issues.

“There are a lot of different groups, and they exist in their own circles, but they don’t really overlap,” he said. “Our goal is to bring all groups in Midtown together.”

One possibility is that the Friends of Midtown, an established 200-member nonprofit dedicated to economic and cultural development, would transfer its status to the improvement district.

“The improvement district has the potential to bring in through assessments a lot of money. If there would be Elm Street designation, that could generate more funds, which is beyond Friends of Midtown,” President Don Barnett said.

Membership fees for Friends of Midtown are $10 for individuals, $15 for a household and $25 for a business.

The nonprofit’s focus is in line with the stated goals of the improvement district, he said. Friends of Midtown also hosts social events for members and, like many other groups, helps promote events hosted by peer organizations.

“I think generally there might be support for it,” Barnett said about the district.

The new district would be comparable to the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District.

“I definitely think we’ll complement each other. It’s all for the good of Harrisburg,” said Todd Vander Woude, the downtown district’s executive director.

The Second Street nonprofit’s primary objective is bringing people to the downtown through promoting events, highlighting business specials and maintaining clean streets.

“I think if everyone would work together, it would help,” Vander Woude said. “We’re all about clean, safe and beautiful in the immediate downtown, but we’re also interested in the overall good of Harrisburg.”

Free marketing

On the promotional side, Harrisburg-based Render Innovations has been developing a new site that city businesses can join for free to promote their operations.

Owner Adam Brackbill said he hopes to launch the full site — HopInTheBurg.com — this month. The West Shore resident said he decided to take on the grassroots effort because he wanted to know more about places to visit in Harrisburg.

The site will be open to all types of business. The biggest thing about the site is that it will include an interactive map, which will be mobile friendly, so visitors can find places they seek, he said.

The link will include business logos and descriptions and/or images of the products and services they provide. There also will be a rating system and a place for businesses to promote specials, Brackbill said.

“As far as the map and companies, we expect to have over 125 businesses,” he said. “Some we added, some were already listed.”

There will be a button where businesses can claim their listing, he said.

“For other content, we’re trying to interview some businesses and highlight them on the site,” Brackbill said.

The site will bring news in from local news sources, he said.

Brackbill said he sees this ongoing effort as a way to help rebuild the hype in the city.

“I’m excited to see how it goes,” he said. “It has good potential. It’s great to see people here that are getting together.”

Taxpayer advocacy

Other groups, such as Debt Watch Harrisburg, are pushing for greater financial transparency to ensure taxpayers remain in the loop as the debt-ridden city slowly pushes its boulder up the hill in an attempt to reach solvency.

Debt Watch came into existence in October 2010, directly in connection with the city’s application for the state’s Act 47 distressed municipalities program. It was started by city attorney Neil Grover.

Today, the group has about 170 members.

“Usually after every court appearance or event, we get additional members,” said Grover, who has made it his mission to advocate for city taxpayers.

Grover was hired July 23 to represent City Council in its Commonwealth Court fight with receiver William Lynch over elements of the court-approved recovery plan.

To be part of the volunteer group, a person needs to pay real estate, earned income or business privilege/mercantile taxes to the city.

“We believe we’ve had an impact,” Grover said. “We believe (city) assets would have been sold already, and we would have stranded debt and no way to pay it.”

As part of Harrisburg’s court-approved recovery plan, Lynch is in the process of selling the incinerator, leasing the parking garages and contracting with an outside party to manage the water and wastewater systems.

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