Harrisburg mayor calls for more support from business community

    Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse speaks during his State of the City address on Wednesday

    Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse speaks during his State of the City address on Wednesday

     The mayor is pushing employer-assisted housing programs and bigger payments in lieu of taxes from non-profits.

    Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse put it out there about halfway through his State of the City address:

    “I challenge every business represented in this room to put a similar housing assistance program in place to encourage your employees to live in Harrisburg.”

    He’s referring to Pinnacle Health’s $5,000 mortgage subsidy for employees who buy houses in the city.

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    That launched last month, along with the city’s $2,000 incentive for public workers.

    Employee-assisted housing programs started out primarily to provide safe, affordable, convenient housing. But the economic benefits that were formerly secondary have local leaders lobbying for EAH programs in struggling communities like Harrisburg, which is in the state’s Act 47 program for municipalities with severe financial problems, and York.

    Papenfuse’s plea to the Capital region’s business community for more support reflects his oft-voiced belief that Harrisburg, like other distressed cities, cannot fully recover without increasing its population and tax base.

    Now nearly a year into his first term, Papenfuse was sworn in less than two weeks after the city resolved a half-billion dollar debt by selling some of its assets.

    So the Yale-educated Baltimore transplant faces enormous pressure – and opportunities – as he tries to rebuild the city on a shoestring budget.

    Papenfuse spent 45 minutes Wednesday morning talking about how that’s going so far. He didn’t take questions from the audience, which customarily are submitted on index cards at the event. He said later he wanted to take an opportuity to deliver his thoughts “in long-form.”

    Papenfuse gave an extremely detailed credit to his cabinet and city department heads for keeping the city going on a razor-thin budget.

    Specifically, they paid bills on time, kept money formerly granted to charities for government expenses, won negotiations for better fire protection and tax collection contracts, and met deadlines – some when $300,000 hung in the balance, he says.

    The Harrisburg area’s movers and shakers applauded several of his remarks. They were silent, though, when he pitched employer-assisted housing programs, and increasing tax-exempt non-profits’ contributions to the city.

    Afterward, the mayor seemed undeterred. “I think it went really well. They sold out, over 400. I think that shows the amount of interest there is in building the sort of collaborative partnership between Harrisburg and the region,” Papenfuse said.

    He says he’ll focus next on enacting a city-wide tax abatement to draw developers to the city, and devising a comprehensive plan for Harrisburg.

    “I think the city has come back from a very low point, and the momentum continues to grow.”


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