Stephen Reed, former Mayor of Harrisburg since 1982

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Stephen Reed
By Brian Baker

13 July 2006: Stephen Reed has been mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for 24 years. The longest serving mayor in the state, Mayor Reed, far from coasting, has initiated several key projects in the city since the millennium. In 2000 the Pennsylvania state legislature asked him to take on the failing school district in the city. It was the first time a mayor had taken on the role in the state. In the last five years, graduation rates are up 71 per cent, numbers continuing to higher education are up 263 per cent.

Update November 2009: In May 2009 Reed lost the city’s primary election and was therefore not re-elected in the November general election. More

In parallel, Mayor Reed has delivered universal 3-5 year old nursery education provision and been a leading player in the successful creation of the first new comprehensive university to be chartered in the state for 100 years. Harrisburg now proudly claims to be the only municipality in the U.S. which is establishing a formal education program for its citizens which runs from age 3 to continuing and advanced education.

The Harrisburg University of Science and Technology received its first students in August 2005. Assurance for future recruits is high as it was granted candidate accreditation status in June 2006, a year earlier than is usual for new academic institutions in the US. The status enables students and prospective students to have a wider range of financial assistance opportunities.

Reed has been involved in politics since he was at school in Harrisburg. Those who attended Bishop McDevitt High School with him in the mid 1960’s recall an earnest youngster, who seemed much older than his years. He was involved with senior school associations like the debating society whilst still very young. Politics was always his passion and he was Chair of the Pennsylvania Teenage Democrats for a period.

However, Stephen Reed didn’t complete his higher education at Dickinson College, leaving early. Many years later, they awarded him an honorary doctorate. The budding politician went to the state capitol in Harrisburg and worked for the Democratic Caucus there. This gave him an early opportunity to impress and he was selected as a candidate in the 1974 elections. These took place in the wake of Nixon’s resignation and in the resulting democrat landslide the 24 year old Reed became a state house representative. Reed served three consecutive two-year terms as a state legislator. During the last of these he doubled up as an elected commissioner of Dauphin County Council which includes Harrisburg, thus gaining his first direct local government experience. He has been in it ever since.

In 1981, aged 32, he contested Harrisburg’s mayoralty. Like many eastern cities the city has a constitution, which allows mayors dominant influence with plenty of opportunity to succeed or fail. Winning the contest, he took up office in January 1982.

Since that success, Reed has won six consecutive elections for his job. In five of those campaigns he was backed by both of the main political parties. Born in Chambersburg, PA, in 1949, Reed has utilised the strong mayor structure to put his imprint indelibly on the small state capital city in the middle Pennsylvania during the late 20th and early 21st century era.

Financial probity lies at the core of his approach and many of the recent and current investment led initiatives are only possible because the city has now enjoyed triple A credit rating status for an extended period. The gradual and sustained improvements in the city’s financial strength has been demonstrated by securing triple A rating after having had no credit rating at all in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and also by the award of the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting by the US Government Finance Officers Association for 18 years in succession. The first award of the long run, in 1988, was the first ever for Harrisburg..

Commenting on the May 2006 announcement of their 18th straight year, Stephen Reed said “ We wish to make it clear to taxpayers and everyone else that this standard is in place in Harrisburg and all in the future should be held to the same.”

It is estimated that $4 billion of private sector investment has been spent in Harrisburg during Reed’s tenure. Property values have risen by 800 per cent.

Reed has invested public dollars in the emergency services throughout and this was in evidence in the flooding of June 2006 when the city was able to manage the crisis and recover quickly because defenses had been improved. The Fire Service, now the largest in Central Pennsylvania, has achieved substantial reductions in the number of fires.

Mayor Reed led waterfront regeneration in the 1990’s and his administration has worked with private sector partners to deliver several residential, commercial, retail and leisure projects there.    

With unemployment at its lowest ever rate and the population level stabilising after years of decline, the success enjoyed in economic development and city revitalisation has made it possible for the mayor and his team to become more ambitious still. Although it was conceived several years ago as a transport infrastructure proposal, the Southern Gateway project is now set to be one of the most ambitious urbanist projects in the country over the next 12 or more years.

It will utilise plinth base engineering to open up a 35 acre area for dense, mixed - use development, much of it high rise. It will double the extent of the downtown. Streets, plazas and buildings will be constructed over re-aligned and lowered roads and rail lines. Reed says “ it may take as long as 25 years to fully realise but it is a signature effort that defines and benefits Harrisburg for well into the 21st century and beyond.”

Part of the economic success story has been through increased visitor numbers. The mayor and his team have created new attractions including the National Civil War Museum and the Whitaker Center for Science and Arts and are currently working on the National African American Cultural Center. Although a location has yet to be finalised for this it is now in design proposal stage with an appointment of lead architect expected during 2006.

The project is ambitious and aims for national and international significance. It also would be a fitting legacy for Reed’s long leadership for perhaps his most impressive achievement has been to continue winning the support of electors and of both the main parties in a black majority city.

He hasn’t had the midas touch with all his visitor attraction initiatives. A proposed Wild West Museum was heavily criticised and was abandoned.
Mayor Reed has held firm to innovative patterns of taxation. He enthusiastically took the opportunity of Pennsylvania local property tax reforms to apply a split rate valuation.This has been attacked by extreme conservatives and Reed has been high profile in answering them. He says “ in our central business district, for example, our two-tiered tax rate policy has specifically encouraged vertical development as opposed to low rise or horizontal development that seems to permeate suburban communities and which utilizes much more land than is necessary.” He says “ nine out of ten property owners gain from the system if compared directly with the single rate system in use in most municipalities in the state.”

He has consistently argued for better regional partnering. He is currently Chair of the South Central Association for Effective Governance. This is the first regional coalition in central Pennsylvania and Reed was a leading figure in bringing it into being. The Harrisburg mayor was the first leader in the region to argue for a commuter rail line and for a regional asset agency.

Mayor Stephen Reed is a nominee for the 2006 World Mayor Award.

World Mayor 2023