Harrisburg’s longest running mayor leaves an equally long legacy

Ioannis Pashakis//February 10, 2020

Harrisburg’s longest running mayor leaves an equally long legacy

Ioannis Pashakis//February 10, 2020

Former Penn National Insurance CEO Jim Taylor and Former Harrisburg mayor Stephen Reed take the first strikes in the groundbreaking of the insurance company’s upcoming 15-story headquarters in the city’s downtown in 1994. PHOTO/SUBMITTED

For most of his time as president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and CREDC, it was not uncommon for David Black to receive a phone call from Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed asking for the chamber’s help to secure funding to bring a new business into the city.

If someone could potentially open a business in the city’s downtown, it was likely that Reed would put them on speaker phone and ask Black to help on a loan then and there.

“He was a mayor who was driven,” said Black. “His life was the city—he bled the city.”

Harrisburg’s mayor from 1982 to 2010, Reed was known for never taking no for an answer when it involved bettering the city and its economy, something that made him well known in both the state and federal arenas as he hunted for grants for projects to improve Harrisburg.

Reed died in January following a 14-year fight with prostate cancer. The legacy he left behind is a city that has become one of Dauphin County’s biggest economic drivers, contributing to 26,000 tourism-related jobs within Dauphin County.

During his 28-year tenure as mayor, Reed introduced initiatives that would make the city more appealing for businesses to set up shop and for visitors to enjoy.

“When it came to an idea for promoting the region, Steve did not have a shy bone in his body,” said Jeff Haste, chairman of the Dauphin County Board of Commissioners.

Under Reed’s leadership, Harrisburg welcomed a minor league baseball team to a newly renovated City Island, helped with the creation of a STEM learning center and a technology university in the city’s downtown and made the city attractive for restaurants, hotels and corporate headquarters.

A brand new Second Street

In the early 1980’s, Harrisburg’s Second Street consisted of boarded-up buildings and few businesses. Where Hilton Harrisburg hotel sits today, stood a XXX movie theater and nearby, an adult book store.

“It was awful,” said Black. “I remember seeing these Steve Reed signs on the boards covering the windows on Second Street. It’s hard to imagine compared to how vibrant it is today.”

Reed wanted to see Second Street grow into a thriving business sector but he was not the type to go about such a change slowly, said Haste. Instead, Reed cast a large net to find restaurants that would invest in his vision for the city. The ones that eventually found a home on the city’s ‘Restaurant Row’ have now come and gone, but they’ve been replaced by other businesses in and around Second Street.

“He was able to go through a generation or two of restaurants,” Haste said. “Some of the restaurants came, had their hay day and now they are gone—it continued beyond their time.”

The Hilton and Crowne Plaza

Second Street was also invigorated by the addition of the Hilton Harrisburg and Crowne Plaza Harrisburg-Hershey hotels.

By 1993, the city’s momentum was picking up speed when Penn National Insurance, formerly located in three four-story office buildings at 19th and Derry Streets, began looking for a place to build a tower to house its headquarters. The insurance company was unsuccessful with its search for a new property in the city and began looking elsewhere when Reed and his team intervened.

“A local developer who had been part of our board of directors for years, received some information from the mayor’s office with some ideas and proposals for ways that we could develop property on Market Square,” said Christopher Markley, a corporate spokesperson with Penn National.

Penn National ended up following through with the property on Market Square after receiving a $2.7 million financial package from Gov. Robert Casey. By 1996, the company finished its 15-story tower. Since then, Penn National has had a perfect view of Harrisburg’s revival as the city’s downtown brought with it more residential and business development, said Markley. There is a deep sense of pride within the organization in seeing how vibrant the city is today, he said.

Reed announced plans for what became Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in 2001 after a visit to Richmond, Va. PHOTO/FILES

More changes

When Reed became mayor, City Island made a name for itself as a concert venue. Throughout the 80’s the island between Harrisburg and Wormleysburg drew in acts like Metallica, Huey Lewis & The News, Billy Idol and the Grateful Dead.

Despite its status as a concert venue, the island also had a reputation as a haven for criminal activity—something that Reed hoped to deter when the city bought the Nashua, New Hampshire-based Nashua Pirates. The team was re-named the Harrisburg Senators in 1986, and Riverside Stadium was built the next year. In 2005 the stadium was renovated and renamed to FNB Field, and the city sold the team in 2006.

City Island became a popular site for tourists, lured by attractions such as the riverboat Pride of the Susquehanna, the Skyline Sports Complex, Water Golf on City Island and Lil’ Grabber Railroad.

A steady flow of projects meant to invigorate the city became a hallmark of Reed’s leadership, said Haste, who noted that every time a project was finished, the city’s “mayor for life” never rested on the accomplishment.

Between 1994 and 1999, the city began acquiring about 3,500 items for another destination meant to draw tourists to the city— the National Civil War Museum, which opened in 2001. To prepare for the museum, the Harrisburg Chamber took a trip to Richmond, Virginia. It was during that trip that Reed realized something else was missing in the capital city – a university. Richmond had one, Harrisburg should, too.

In 2001, Reed announced plans for a four-year college that would operate in the city as the Harrisburg Polytechnic Institute. By 2003, the institute changed its name to Harrisburg University of Science and Technology and invested more than $18 million to renovate the former YWCA building that became the school’s first home.

“Mayor Stephen R. Reed was a visionary whose foresight changed the landscape of Harrisburg,” said Dr. Eric Darr, president of Harrisburg University. “Under his leadership, Harrisburg University was created as a hub for STEM learning and economic development. He lived to see today’s HU recognized as a model of higher education and civic impact.”

Reed’s desire to grow the city as a destination for STEM learning also resulted in the groundbreaking of the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts in 1997. A task force formed by Reed helped the center acquire the grant funding from both Harrisburg and the Commonwealth that would help fund the project.

Reed’s failed projects

Two notable projects spearheaded by Reed did not succeed.

The first was his idea for a Wild West Museum, an attempt to continue the success of the Civil War museum. Reed spent more than $8 million of taxpayer money on artifacts. Plans for the museum were eventually discarded, but in 2015, former state Attorney General Kathleen Kane charged Reed with 499 criminal charges after approximately 1,800 of the artifacts were found in his Harrisburg home

Reed eventually plead guilty to 20 felony and misdemeanor counts related to receiving stolen property, and was sentenced to two years of probation and a fine.

The former mayor was also embroiled in attempts to improve the city’s incinerator. The incinerator was shut down in the early 2000’s by the federal government after a report by the Environmental Protection Agency noted it was polluting the air with dioxins.

Reed’s administration tried to reopen the incinerator and pay for it by charging fees to surrounding counties, the plan was unsuccessful. The firm working on the incinerator filed for bankruptcy and, over time, the city found itself $300 million in debt.

The city would have to sell bonds to pay another firm to finish the job. The city debt resulting from the project led to Pennsylvania offering a bailout to the city in 2011.

While there is no doubt both failed programs, particularly the incinerator, had a negative impact on Reed’s legacy, his supporters believe that they were minor compared to where Harrisburg is today.

“Everyone says that (the incinerator was a) big negative but I say, did the city ever go bankrupt? No,” said Haste. “It is not as big as a failure as everyone wants to make it out to be and there were lessons that can be learned from that.”

Business today

A man of many ideas and the willpower to get them done, Reed’s vision for a prosperous Harrisburg has left a significant mark on the city. While those who know him say he wouldn’t take no for an answer when he believed in an initiative for the city, Haste said what he learned most from the former mayor was to fight for something until he found a middle ground.

“If I didn’t agree with him, some people would take that as a no and take the ball and go somewhere else. Steve didn’t do that,” Haste said. “He would sit, think about what I said and he would find a way to incorporate my concerns into the plan to make sure it would happen”

If the city’s business sector has taken anything away from Reed’s leadership, his friend’s and longtime collaborators say it has been that sense of collaboration.

Economic drivers like Harrisburg University still have much to contribute to the city, according to Haste. With incoming additions like the university’s new Health Science Education Center under construction at South Third and Chestnut Streets, he said it will be hard to imagine how much more the city will grow.