Sleepy old Harrisburg a happenin' place today
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Click image above to a multimedia slideshow about Harrisburg's vibrant new chapter.
HARRISBURG -- The martini crowd gathers at Cafe Fresco as college students line up for an Ice T concert at The Dragonfly, theater-goers take in "Steel Magnolias" and wannabe hippies puff hookahs at Skewers, a kabob restaurant sandwiched between an Irish pub and a still vacant storefront.
This is Harrisburg, 2007.
Twenty years ago you'd be more likely to find porn shops and boarded-up buildings here than vibrant clubs, pubs and sidewalk cafes. That was then.
"People are saying how alive Harrisburg is now. They come back and say, 'This isn't the Harrisburg I remember growing up.' It's a vibrant city," said Jeff Murison, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District.
Built on the east shore of the wide, shallow Susquehanna River, the capital city was one of the first industrialized cities in the Northeast and played a critical role in American history as a stopping place on the Underground Railroad, a Civil War trading post and home to the Whig convention that nominated William Henry Harrison for president in 1839.
Harrisburg has long been a city abuzz during daylight hours when elected officials, government workers, lobbyists and lawyers are conducting business.
More recently, it's become a place where you can take in a minor-league ball game after work, sample sushi, see an IMAX movie, take a painting class and dance the night away, all within walking distance of downtown.
Hop in a car or call a cab to visit the National Fire Museum, Wildwood Lake Sanctuary or the National Civil War Museum, which opened six years ago and already has a reputation for its evenhanded treatment of the Union and the Confederacy.
"It's a small city that has a lot going for it," Mr. Murison said. "The negative is that people don't know it."
Entertainment, recreation and history are only a few of the puzzle pieces put together over two decades to produce Harrisburg's revitalization.
"To have a really good, vibrant downtown there has to be a healthy balance of all services and activities and opportunities people are looking for. You need places to work and be successful, interesting and convenient places to live, a healthy variety of nightlife, arts and culture, retail and amenities like parks," Mr. Murison said. "Harrisburg excels at nearly all of that."
Harrisburg has been especially successful at attracting the food-and-beverage industry, arts ventures and the education sector, where the newest project, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, opened last year in temporary quarters while its 16-story classroom building is under construction.
Only the retail sector is lacking, say residents, developers and business owners. There are few options for grocery shopping downtown and only one chain clothing store, Dress Barn.
"There are a few little specialty shops but not many," said businessman Ron Kamionka, who owns several Harrisburg businesses including pubs, a new diner and Hardware Bar, the city's hottest club, where scantily clad women dance on the bar Coyote Ugly-style.
More retail would help draw more customers to all downtown businesses, Mr. Kamionka said.
That will come eventually, said Mayor Stephen Reed, who is widely credited with orchestrating the city's rebirth.
"Retail is the last thing to happen. You can't bring about urban renewal by starting with retail. No. That's the last thing that comes into place," Mr. Reed said. "First you have to have more homes, more jobs and more activities taking place."
Mr. Reed says he knew that from the start.
He laid out his aggressive redevelopment plan as soon as he took office in 1982, standing up to pessimists who said mid-sized cities were lost causes.
"People said I was crazy with these big, bold, daring goals ... but I always believed in what [poet] Robert Browning said: that a person's reach should exceed his grasp. That's true for cities, too," he said. "We're proving the viability of American cities."
A 'happening' place
Redevelopment began with Strawberry Square, a complex of retail stores, small eateries and office spaces completed in 1988.
Next came the four-star Hilton Hotel, the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts and the addition of parking garages, which made downtown a viable location for Stocks on Second, an eatery that kicked off the establishment of an area now known as Restaurant Row.
"It's been a long and determined course of economic development," said Brad Jones, vice president of commercial development for Harristown Development Corp., which was involved in the Strawberry Square, Hilton, Whitaker Center and other projects.
"The table has been set by all these determined efforts to build a critical mass and get to a tipping point, specifically for the food and beverage industry," he said.
Then came Harrisburg Young Professionals, a network of energetic and civic-minded residents that came together in 2004 with an eye toward making the city livable for the white-collar crowd.
"The group flourished very quickly and its members became the patrons for a lot of the downtown businesses," Mr. Jones said. "That helped the continued restaurant boom."
A recent addition is the restaurant Bricco, a collaboration between the Hilton Hotel and Harrisburg Area Community College's culinary department, whose students operate the business and use its kitchen as a real-world classroom. On the upper floors is International House, an 86-bed dormitory for foreign and American students interning at the Capitol or attending college in the city.
In all, 16 new restaurants opened last year, including The Quarter with its Cajun-style frogs legs, 405 Jazz on Walnut with its groovy jams, and Tom Sawyer Diner and Entertainment Complex with its outdoor pool table and fire pits that patrons gather around on cool evenings.
"There are more things opening right before your eyes. It's a happening place now. Harrisburg is upgrading itself," said longtime resident Richard Hadley, 31, during a break from a bike ride around City Island, Harrisburg's centerpiece park and home to the Senators, farm team to the National League Washington Nationals; and the City Islanders semi-professional soccer team.
The island had been overgrown and unused until 1987. That's when the city began converting it into a social hub with batting cages, a video arcade, a miniature golf course, two ice cream stands, a small beach, sand volleyball courts, a carousel, a kiddie train, a stable providing horse-drawn carriage rides and a riverboat offering murder-mystery dinner cruises on the Susquehanna.
"There's a lot to do here now," Mr. Hadley said. "There's a lot going on all over Harrisburg."
The city is home to two micro-breweries, five gay bars, a four-star hotel, high-end metropolitan restaurants, a planetarium, two swimming pools, five professional sports teams, a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, several theater companies, a 20-mile greenbelt and the area's No. 1 tourist attraction, the Capitol, where people come from all corners of the globe to view its 277-foot-high gold-leafed rotunda, stained-glass windows, marble staircase and Violet Oakley murals.
Harrisburg has a lot to offer, and it's frustrating to Mr. Reed that outsiders don't know it.
Then and now
When Mr. Reed became mayor in 1983, it was a rundown industrial city that hadn't fully recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Agnes in 1972. By 1981, the federal government named it the second-most distressed city in America. Only East St. Louis, still troubled today, had a worse rating.
The federal government shut down Harrisburg's access to community-development grants because the city's bookkeeping was so bad. Downtown had more vacant storefronts than occupied ones. A new city hall had just been built, but there was no money to pay the construction bills.
"This city was in bad shape," said Brian Long, who operates Broad Street Market in the Midtown section. "It used to be filled with so much bad element -- drugs, prostitution and pornography."
Fast forward to now.
Midtown now is a diverse, up-and-coming neighborhood renowned for its collection of used-book stores, galleries and charming row houses.
Nearby, there is the affluent and picturesque Shipoke neighborhood with its Queen Anne-style homes and river views.
In another part of town, the Pennsylvania Farm Show complex is home to the nation's largest agriculture exposition. When the grounds aren't full of farm animals, the complex plays host to gubernatorial balls, flea markets, dog shows, boat shows, the Pennsylvania Garden Expo, cheerleading competitions and other events. Recently, it hosted the Eastern National Antique Show, an alpaca show and a rodeo -- all in the same weekend.
Downtown's Riverfront Park heats up between Memorial Day weekend's Greater Harrisburg ArtsFest and Labor Day weekend's Kipona, a food and music festival marking the end of summer. In between, there's the Susquehanna River Celebration, Harrisburg Symphony's annual concert aboard a barge, the Pride Festival of Central Pennsylvania and the American MusicFest, which last year closed with fireworks and a Beach Boys concert.
Reservoir Park, the highest point in the city, includes a band shell and four stand-alone studios that make up an artists' colony where the Harrisburg Art Association holds pottery and sculpture classes. The park also hosts annual Shakespeare in the Park performances, the African-American Family Festival, the Women's Music Festival, a Reggae Festival, talent contests, outdoor movies and the city's annual Easter egg hunt.
"This is a new day in Harrisburg," Mr. Murison said. "This is a modern state capital that rivals any city in the region."
Dominic Nacci, 20, who moved from Moon to attend Harrisburg University, wouldn't go quite that far, but still he's glad he chose the capital city for college.
"It feels like a slow small city," he said. "I'm used to Pittsburgh," which, recently was named America's most livable city by "Places Rated Almanac."
Justin Dickson, formerly of Dormont, who also moved to the capital to attend school, has a different impression.
"It's a lot better than I thought it would be. It's not too big, but it's definitely lively," Mr. Dickson said between customers at the swanky Cafe Fresco, where he tends bar when he isn't taking classes at Harrisburg Area Community College.
"When I said I was coming here, people who haven't been here recently were like, 'Why are you going to Harrisburg? It's a dump.' So I didn't have very high expectations," he said.
"There's a lot here. You can go to Ceoltas [Irish pub] for dinner and then go dancing or hang out," he said. "I do wish it was a little bigger. It's a small city."
Harrisburg used to be home to nearly 90,000, according to the U.S. Census. That was in 1950 before white flight sent many residents to the suburbs. It was also before the 22 percent population drop that followed Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
Population now is 49,000, according to the latest census, showing that redevelopment efforts have slowed, but not stemmed the migration.
"We have a human scale," Mr. Reed said. "We're a size where people make a difference. Here, you're not a faceless number amid a mass of humanity."
A constant struggle
Still, Mr. Reed wants more growth.
Already, there are plans for a 3-million-square-foot office complex, two boutique hotels, a $100 million federal courthouse, three luxury condominium complexes, a new classroom building for Messiah College's Harrisburg Institute, an expansion of Harrisburg Area Community College's midtown campus and more.
"We're in a big period of growth now. We're in a boom period," Mr. Reed said.
"We could rapidly accelerate the pace here with more resources," he said. "We do not lack ideas or the will to carry them out. The vision, the will and the spirit are all in place. "
Mr. Reed is determined to keep Harrisburg well positioned for the future.
"It's a constant struggle. You've got to be constantly struggling to advance the city's progress or it will regress," he said. "If you're not fighting to move forward, all the other forces and factors will force you backward."
First Published May 12, 2007 10:46 pm