September 27, 2023
City of Harrisburg Mayor Wanda R.D. Williams gave the following speech at the State of the City, presented by the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and CREDC, on Wednesday, September 27, 2023.
Good afternoon! Thank you to Ryan Unger, the Harrisburg Regional Chamber, and CREDC for hosting this wonderful event today. And thanks to all of you for coming.
The Mayor’s State of the City address is our chance to be honest with all of you. And I say “our” because, while I may be the one standing in front right now, never before in the modern history of this city has there been this much inter-department cooperation and collaboration. City Hall is working in unison; more than 400 employees rowing the boat in the same forward direction.
What does that mean for you, the political and business leaders of the capital region? It means you are in the right place at the right time, and it means to tell your friends who think this town is stuck in the past to get on board, because this train is picking up steam. The greatness of this city is being realized, and you will want to be here for the fireworks. The state of the City of Harrisburg is full of excitement and promise, and the best is yet to come.
Today, I am proud to stand here and speak to you about not only our accomplishments of the past year, but also what we are mostly looking forward to for the next year. We do acknowledge that we are not perfect, and if we want to realize the dream that we all know the City of Harrisburg can be, there is plenty of room for growth.
Let us start with the one area I am maybe most proud of: The City of Harrisburg’s debt nightmare is over! When I ran for mayor, I ran on the promise we would eliminate – once and for all – the $638 million debt going back over 25 years. One year ago, on this stage, I promised we would be debt free in 2023. We have accomplished that! This past March, we paid off the final $8.3 million to AMBAC Assurance, wiping away a debt which had ballooned to $26 million just a few years ago. In the process, we saved City of Harrisburg taxpayers millions of dollars. With those funds, we plan to invest it directly into the city’s growth: infrastructure projects, safer roads, more secure neighborhoods, modernized parks, and future infrastructure projects.
Thanks to the work of the Finance team, led by Director Marita Kelley, an exit of the city’s Act 47 status is in sight. The Finance team has helped the City of Harrisburg restore its fiscal strength. In fact, we just presented our five-year financial plan to the city’s Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, and thanks to our balanced budgets, our yearly surplus, and current debt-free status, we are confident in saying we will be able to leave Act 47 in the near future.
For the first time in decades, the City of Harrisburg has the necessary funds to make large scale capital improvements to this city. These will range from safer streets to greener parks – public safety to workforce development. Every person in this room will soon see the positive impact of this money.
Most notably, and very publicly, I worked with City Council to pass more than $31.5 million in American Rescue Plan funds. It was not always easy, but like good government should, we got it done for the people of Harrisburg. To President Bowers and the rest of Council, thank you. With this money, we will be able to build more affordable housing for low-to-moderate income residents, including seniors – give our children a safe, modern pool to swim during the hot, summer months – provide resources for individuals to end unsheltered homelessness – and give our youth better access to career opportunities so they can become the next group of entrepreneurs and leaders. The possibilities with these funds are endless. My office is constantly working to develop programs on how to use this one-time amount of funding, and we look forward to providing updates with all of you as we move in the right direction.
Separate of that is the $13 million we are currently using to reimagine and redesign four of our city parks. For too long, Harrisburg’s playgrounds have been outdated and not inclusive for all children. Other towns have exceeded us. But not for long. Harrisburg is on the move!
Our Parks team, under our new director, Sasha Ross, just wrapped up a six-month public comment period, receiving input and ideas from families all throughout the city on how they would like to see the renovation of 7th and Radnor Park, Wilson Park, Gorgas Playground, and parts of Reservoir Park should look. While the details are still being sorted out, my promise to you is that these parks will look completely different than they do today, and for the better. They will be safer, modern, and accessible to everyone.
Part of making Harrisburg a safe place to live is giving our kids a safe place to play. These parks will be complete by the end of next year, and in the Spring of 2025, when our children are out playing in our new playgrounds, it will be a beautiful sight to see.
Of course, there is another park that will look a little different come that Spring: FNB Field on City Island. Because the Senators are here to stay, and have decided to remain in Harrisburg.
I am beyond proud of my administration for getting a deal done with the Senators to give needed renovations to FNB Field. Under my administration, working with our partners in state government is something we should embrace, not push away. The commonwealth is picking up a $6 million tab to help give our stadium the improvements it needs to keep the Senators here for at least the next 16 years.
Without the help of our partners at the county and state level, as well as private business partners, I am honestly unsure what would have happened with the Broad Street Market’s brick building when it burned on July 10. When that fire started, the lives of 22 vendors, and countless Harrisburg residents, changed instantly.
Within hours, Governor Shapiro was on the phone, pledging the full support of his office and his administration. Knowing he had our back gave us the boost we needed to push forward. Thank you, Governor Shapiro, Dauphin County Commissioners Pries, Hartwick, and Saylor, and your staffs. You all have continued to give our city your support. Also, I would like to give a big shoutout to our state legislators: David Madsen, Justin Fleming, and Patty Kim. Your presence, words of encouragement, and offers to assist are very much appreciated.
None of this happens, mind you, if it wasn’t for the generosity of business owner Josh Kesler for allowing us to lease his plot of land to erect the temporary market. Josh, I thank you, and my city thanks you. With your help, and the resolve of the Broad Street Market vendors, I can safely say we are days away from being able to reopen the market to Harrisburg once again!
The restoration of the Broad Street Market was never a question, because of what it means to the people of this city. For many, it is *the* heart and hub of the community. People gather there to shop, eat, meet, and share family and community news. Our business developer Jason Graves is working now to bring more grocery options to the city. I am calling on these businesses to step up for this community. We have handicapped residents who do not have the ability to go to other areas, and therefore rely heavily on the Broad Street Market for fresh food.
There once was a time that the City of Harrisburg was a cultural and business destination. In recent years, as we have fought through financial recovery, this has gotten away from us. But we are in the midst of a great resurgence. In the coming weeks, you will see the city’s economic development plan. This will be our blueprint. We will transform Harrisburg’s future through equity and inclusion, access to healthcare services, supporting our local artists, and realizing that strengthening our culture is a keystone of small business growth. As our community policing efforts grow, so will our business fleet. As many of you know, we just re-instituted a youth curfew which we hope will make your business – and future businesses – more desirable. The less time our children are out late at night means the more they are hopefully focused on getting ready for school the next day, and the more you can focus on operating successful businesses.
This is not to say we are not already doing incredible work. Licensing Director Michael Hughes tells me that in the 2022 calendar year, we issued 635 business licenses throughout the city! That is the highest amount we have issued in a dozen years. Our 2022 tax collection was nearly $3.3 million, exceeding our projections by $269,000. We expect this revenue to continue to grow this year thanks to large, ongoing construction projects set to be completed.
As our business community grows, they will find, in turn, that working with the City of Harrisburg will be easier than ever thanks to our IT unit. We are in the process of fully migrating over using “Munis by Tyler Technologies.” This will move Harrisburg from an antiquated, 40-year-old system to modern, digital technology. We have already transitioned our internal financial operations. And over the next year, the city’s tax billing and collection — licensing and permitting — and utility billing will all be available with the click of a button, and not having to worry about getting a parking ticket downtown.
Our IT team, under the direction of Steve Bortner, is making great strides with the modernization of Harrisburg’s mainframe. They are doing this, mind you, despite having to renovate the entire lower level after significant water damage in the Spring. I am proud of their efforts, and proud of how they are getting Harrisburg caught up to modern standards.
My pledge to the business community is this: as we move forward with our Munis integration, business enterprise engagement for minorities, women, and disadvantaged will be at the forefront of anything we do when it comes to growing our business community.
Thanks to the leadership of Mister Karl Singleton, Harrisburg has placed a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion more than at any other point in our city’s history. The equity roundtable Mr. Singleton has established continues to meet monthly to learn best practices on the local, state, and national level. Leadership starts at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. City Government Center. It is important to remember that the city’s department directors do not work just for me – they work for you, the people of Harrisburg. Half of Harrisburg is African American. That is more than 25-thousand people. The City of Harrisburg is the largest majority African American city in the commonwealth. A quarter of the city is Hispanic or Latino. As capital of the Keystone State, diversity is our keystone. If we are not ensuring DEI is at the core of everything we do, how can we expect the rest of Harrisburg to move forward in an equitable manner? That goes for whether we are talking about hiring practices, or providing housing for disadvantaged communities.
When I took office, one of my top priorities – if not the top goal – was to foster a city that could create more affordable housing. Our Building and Housing Director Dennise Hill is working every day to ensure not only are we bringing developers into the city who can make this possible, but also are individuals who represent this community. That is why I am so grateful to have people like former Philadelphia Eagle LeSean McCoy come back home and start construction on the Savoy Homes in the Uptown area – or George Fernandez – President and CEO of the Latino Connection – who is building units in South Harrisburg and Allison Hill – or the Bethel Village affordable senior housing – a Bethel AME Church dream made possible by Blaine Stoddart, Ryan Sanders, and business partners. These are great examples of work being done for a community by people who truly represent them, and I am proud to stand alongside our community partners.
As Mayor, I have met with several building developers, along with representatives from PA Housing & Finance, Tri-County Housing, and the Harrisburg Housing Authority in a good faith effort to produce more affordable housing for our senior population. I have also met with TLC Construction (owned by Tariq Casetel) who will begin construction next year for 50 affordable housing units in the Allison Hill neighborhood.
And to the developers here with us today who may not specialize in affordable housing, I want to meet with you as well. Harrisburg should be open to everyone, whether it’s affordable housing or market rate.
Our Department of Building and Housing continues to do work for homeowners in the city through housing rehabilitation grants. We are now working with 12 contractors, and in the past year, we brought 20 homes up to code. Meanwhile, the Lead Safe removal program has made 230 homes built before 1979 free of harmful lead-based paint, and we plan to submit another 3.5-year grant to the commonwealth.
When homes are past their lifespan, the Codes Bureau is first on the scene. The issue of blighted properties is nothing new to Harrisburg – or any urban setting. Since the start of the year, Codes has demolished 16 condemned and blighted buildings, clearing the way for green space and eventually, new affordable homes. When all our departments are working in unison, it makes it possible to turn blight into something bright.
At the end of the day though, we realize none of this matters if Harrisburg is not a safe place to live, work, and play. That is why I am continually grateful for the work being done by Commissioner Tom Carter and the Harrisburg Bureau of Police. In 2022, our detectives solved 18 of the 22 homicides in the city. That is a nearly 80-percent clip, about 30 percent higher than the national average. This year, shooting deaths are down considerably from a year ago, and Harrisburg Police have taken more than 170 guns off our streets. But as we will all agree – even one death, no matter how it happens, is one too many.
The city realizes that in order to stop gun violence, it starts with getting to group leaders first. The Group Violence Intervention grant gives us the resources to do just that. For more than a year now, police have been making in-roads in the community, with the help of our county law enforcement partners – our judges and District Attorney’s office – and human services workers.
We are working with citizen groups on the front lines of neighborhood gun violence. Our message to you is this: we are here to help you, and there are other paths – safer paths – for you and your family. It is never too late to change.
We are also leaning on our neighbors. The City of York has used the GVI program for about six years. For Harrisburg, this is a new strategy and it will take time, and we are confident it will pay off with countless lives saved.
In the meantime, Harrisburg Police is at the forefront of law enforcement technology, using cell phone programs to unlock encrypted data from criminals’ phones. They are also soon rolling out shot-spotter technology which can pinpoint where shots are fired and where officers are needed. Thanks to federal grants, we will have the money to make doorbell cameras available to numerous residents, so everyone can feel safer in their own home. Harrisburg City Police is also working with the Harrisburg school district to employ 20 crossing guards – so our children can safely get to school on time – and back home at the end of the day.
When it comes to fighting fires, there is no greater unit than the Harrisburg Bureau of Fire to save the day. Under Chief Brian Enterline’s watch, not a single person has died in a City of Harrisburg fire from the start of 2022 to the present day.
Often times, when our neighbors need help, Harrisburg Fire is the first to respond. Their training is impeccable. Harrisburg was on the scene after the building explosion in West Reading, and when there was severe flooding in Bucks County. Last year, when Florida needed help cleaning up after Hurricane Ian, we sent eight firefighters down to the Gulf Coast as part of Pennsylvania’s Task Force One. And two of our firefighters were just named as experts in aquatic rescue for the PA Heart Team.
As Mayor, I am beyond proud of the leadership from both Commissioner Carter and Chief Enterline. We are fortunate to have these two leaders in our community. We owe them, and the men and women on their staff, the ultimate debt of gratitude for keeping us safe every day.
When I took office more than a year and a half ago, I pledged to the people of Harrisburg that I would be a mayor for everyone. My platform is driven by senior citizens, youth, and affordable housing initiatives. Someone living in Allison Hill or Uptown deserves the same attention and respect as someone living in Midtown or Shipoke. During the week, it’s all business, and on Fridays, my doors are open.
Over the past year, I have met with nearly 200 constituents. In addition, I have met with people from Carlisle, West Chester, Philadelphia, Hummelstown, and various other cities in between. We talk, I listen to their concerns, and we work together on how to make the City of Harrisburg better.
We are doing better by our youth today than ever before. Our Summer programs helped employ 137 kids this past Summer, which was a nearly 100% increase from the Summer of 2022. And with American Rescue Plan funds, City Council is helping us establish a workforce development plan, which will include a high school co-op initiative, and a college internship program.
For the people who say there is nothing to do in Harrisburg, the City has Artsfest, Kipona, Fire and Ice, the 4th of July Food Truck Festival, July Concert Series, Summer Movie Nights, and so many other special events which are back to pre-pandemic attendance levels.
I was so impressed when I attended this year’s Candle In The Water event, and the Women’s Empowerment Reception. I was also at the truly memorable Weekender Festival, graciously hosted by the Harrisburg Housing Authority.
Future events coming up include the Halloween Bash at the Brownstone, and Italian Lake Fishing Day in October. The City of Harrisburg even just started an African dance workshop, and next week, we will debut interactive Spanish classes.
Let’s not forget, in November, the annual holiday parade will come marching down Second Street with a variety of floats, musical acts, HBCU marching bands, and of course, Santa! Best of all, these events are entirely free, and provide opportunities for families to come together.
Lastly, I would be remised if I did not thank the one person who makes this possible; the individual whose fingerprints are all over the positive direction which our city is headed, and who shies away from the spotlight: my business administrator Dan Hartman. Dan, words cannot begin to describe how much I value and appreciate you.
My friends, our best days are ahead of us, because for the first time in years, all of us in this room have a shared vision together. My administration is excited to lead. You have heard about our plans. Now, let me ask you: what will you do to help us make them a reality? The train is leaving the station – are you ready to jump on board?