More firms moving in as city bounces back from brink of bankruptcy
His fast-growing digital marketing firm, WebpageFX Inc., now has more than 100 employees.
Craig has a goal of doubling his staff in five years. Renovations to the company’s building at 1705 N. Front St. are underway, and Craig knows he will need to expand beyond that property in the future.
He has no doubt that growth will occur in Harrisburg. He saw a 20 percent increase in applicants after moving to the city and knows the millennials often attracted to technology firms want a walkable urban lifestyle.
WebpageFX is among the biggest tech firms in Harrisburg. But it’s not the only one growing in the capital city.
Over the last two years, several tech firms have decided to call Harrisburg home.
“In circles we run in, we see things starting to happen in Harrisburg,” said Chris Reese, a managing partner at Ephyra Group, a five-employee branding and marketing firm that relocated last fall from Carlisle to the Harrisburg Transportation Center on Market Street.
Many local tech and economic development leaders have been following the city’s revitalization efforts as it works to bounce back from a mound of incinerator debt, which pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy.
“I think, in general, the city and the downtown are experiencing very recent positive growth as the (recovery) plan gets implemented and businesses feel more secure with where the city is headed,” said Brad Jones, president and CEO of Harristown Enterprises Inc., owner of Strawberry Square.
Local tech entrepreneurs see a growing pool of local talent they can draw from at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology — home to more than 3,000 students — and the potential for tech-related spin-offs.
They also are finding networking and event support from HU and other partners, including the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania and the Life Sciences Greenhouse of Central Pennsylvania.
And, of course, many tech leaders see the same benefits as their current and prospective employees: a lower cost of living in Harrisburg compared with most major cities, a growing menu of market-rate rental housing options and more awareness of the ease of commuting to downtown Harrisburg via Amtrak.
Notable tech-related tenants filling spaces in Harrisburg over the last year include Xerox Corp., Deloitte, Chemical Solutions Ltd., Evidera, VisiQuate Inc., Sigma Resources and WildFig.
Technology-related companies continue to converge on downtown Harrisburg, mostly around Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.
More companies could be on the way following the January announcement that Geneia LLC, a health care analytics and technology solutions subsidiary of Susquehanna Township-based Capital BlueCross, will be the lead tenant in the World Trade Center Harrisburg building at Cameron and Herr streets.
Geneia will bring at least 100 tech jobs to the city.
Swatara Township-based Geneia LLC, a health care analytics and technology subsidiary of Capital BlueCross, will be the next big one when it opens at the World Trade Center Harrisburg building at Cameron and Herr streets. Geneia will bring at least 100 jobs into the city later this year. The move could help reshape Cameron Street and serve as a catalyst for other tech growth in the city.
“We need a few more of them,” said Chuck Russell, president and CEO of the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania.
A steady stream of tech startups, big and small, would give the homegrown talent a chance to spread its wings and pursue different opportunities.
A longstanding goal in Harrisburg — at least since the late 1990s when Harrisburg Young Professionals was founded — has been to combat brain drain. The effort has slowly been working, which drives other development in the city, including new restaurants and retail options.
“Some acorns will be trees,” Craig said. “And some will grow to be mighty oaks.”
WebpageFX intends to be in the latter group and hopefully bring more top talent into Harrisburg, he said. “Hopefully, they are here for 30 years. If not, a certain percentage will put down roots.”
And some will leave only to come back later with a new startup. That was the case with Evidera, a Maryland-based data analytics company in the health care information technology field.
Stephanie Reisinger, vice president of technology solutions for Evidera, previously worked for ProSanos Corp., a Harrisburg company that was funded by the Life Sciences Greenhouse of Central Pennsylvania.
BioHitech America, a New York-based company that makes eco-safe aerobic digesters for hospitality, health care and food service industries, among others, is another example. COO Bob Joyce grew up in Central Pennsylvania and moved to Boston for 16 years before coming back to Harrisburg last year to open a research and development office for the company.
“They become an anchor for others (to follow),” said Mel Billingsley, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Life Sciences Greenhouse of Central Pennsylvania.
Albert Sarvis, director of the geospatial technology center at HU, said most of his students would like to stay in the area after graduation.
But that’s not always possible, especially if they want to pursue careers in geospatial intelligence. That often takes them to Washington, D.C.
However, there are growing opportunities to work for utility companies, engineering firms and municipal governments. HU recently moved its geospatial technology center into the Blackberry Technology Center, a 3,600-square-foot building tucked away in the city’s South of Market district.
For HU, the added space gives more students an opportunity to engage in real-world digital mapping projects and work as subconsultants for engineering, information technology and other consulting firms.
Blackberry is a public-private partnership that developers and tech support organizations say could be replicated.
Harristown is mulling over a similar concept on South Third Street, where it is working on some mixed-use redevelopment projects that will include luxury apartments geared toward young professionals.
“We’ve reached the tipping point,” Jones said.
Taking it a step further, many local tech entrepreneurs said they see value in trying to create a tech incubator or accelerator in Harrisburg. The Ben Franklin TechCelerator in Carlisle was the starting point for several of the growing firms in Harrisburg, including Ephyra Group, WebpageFX and WorkXpress.
Even greater tech growth is possible under that scenario.
“The nature of the city has an impact on the region,” Craig said.