Harrisburg officials want Downtown Improvement District to do more than bring in restaurants

Flowers downtown harrisburg.JPG

Harrisburg's Downtown Development District provides and maintains flowers as part of its efforts, but Harrisburg officials want the nonprofit to do more. The district must obtain an extension by city council members to continue operating beyond December.

HARRISBURG- Harrisburg city officials are proposing a two-year extension authorizing the Downtown Improvement District, instead of the typical five-year contract, in the hopes that the nonprofit will expand its scope.

"Go outside the city and see what other communities have done," said Councilwoman Susan Brown-Wilson. "There's more to a downtown than restaurants. I'd like to see something else done."
Council Vice President Sandra Reid said city residents don't frequent downtown, "because there's no reason to."

City Solicitor Neil Grover said the nonprofit could try to win grants and find other  resources to generate broader economic development and bring more visitors downtown.

"We're not trying to be punitive," he said. "We're just trying to rework it. We can use the two-year window to explore what they can do."

City council members discussed the extension in a caucus meeting prior to Tuesday night's legislative session, their first meeting since summer break ended.

The district's five-year extension is set to expire at the end of December so council members must vote on the authorization before then for the district to continue. The renewal would mark the fourth extension for the district.

Commercial property owners in the 25-block area pay a 1.5 mil surcharge on city property taxes for the district's attention.

The district has helped make Restaurant Row a destination for the midstate. The group added trees and hanging flower baskets to its concrete jungle.

In addition, the organization provides daily sidewalk and curb pickups, seasonal power-washing, graffiti removal, and streetlight banners and lighting to dress up the downtown. It runs the electronic message board at Market Square.

Solar-powered trash and recycling containers added in June.

Solar-powered trash and recycling containers added in June.

In June, the district added two solar-powered trash and recycling stations that compact items and alert staff members when they are full.

Besides encouraging district leaders to think bigger about what they can do for downtown, council members also want to replace a district board member, Bill Balaban whose been on the board for 15 years. He's known as a close associate of former Mayor Stephen Reed, who is now facing 499 criminal counts for alleged public corruption.

Balaban was appointed to the board as a representative for city council by council members after the district was formed in 1999. But current council members only recently became aware that Balaban represented them on the board, said Mayor Eric Papenfuse.

Council President Wanda Williams said she wanted to appoint a city resident to the position. She asked other council members to submit nominations.

The city also recently added its business development director, Devan Drabik, as an ex-officio member of the district board, Papenfuse said.

Attorney Bruce Foreman is the solicitor for the district. He and his law firm were recently named in a lawsuit filed by the state coordinator for Harrisburg's recovery plan to recoup $3.6 million lost in a botched parking garage deal.

Todd Vander Woude, director of the district, did not return a phone call to his home  Tuesday night.

Papenfuse said he met with district board members Tuesday in a "very productive" meeting.

"Everything they're doing is good, but we think they could do more," he said.

Williams said she planned to meet with district officials Wednesday.