Story By Randy Gross – firstname.lastname@example.org
Harristown President & CEO builds upon a legacy of redevelopment
“His mind now misgave him; he began to doubt whether both he and the world around him were not bewitched. Surely this was his native village which he had left but the day before.” — from Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”
Suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine it were possible for someone, anyone, whether their name be Rip Van Winkle or John Doe, to sleep for decades at a time. In Rip’s case it was for twenty years, but let’s say our deep slumberer was in a dream state for fifty and had first laid himself down on a bench in Harrisburg’s Market Square way back in June of 1972. Yes, before that “storm of the century” Hurricane Agnes hit Pennsylvania with a vengeance (so, hopefully, our sleeper’s pajamas were waterproof). Before Strawberry Square and The Whitaker Center. Even before Stephen R. Reed first stepped into the mayor’s office with a “let’s build Restaurant Row” twinkle in his eye. Now, ask yourself the question, “if someone had been asleep non-stop for five decades and was waking up for the first time on that bench … what would be the first thing you might say to prepare them for the way Harrisburg has changed?”
This seemed like a perfect question to pose to Bradley Jones, President and CEO of Harristown Development Corporation, a non-profit entity that’s been working hard at revitalizing downtown Harrisburg for nearly 50 years (since 1974!).
“Harrisburg has become a place where people want to live,” answered Jones, “and that has gotten better and better during my tenure here. And Harrisburg is becoming a very popular place for people to move to, too. You see places like Lancaster, Harrisburg, and York becoming popular in terms of people moving out of bigger cities and coming here. And that’s really exciting for us, because we sign all the leases, and we see where people are coming from, and we’re like ‘wow’, they’re coming from California, Texas, New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York, you name it.”
That excitement, at least in recent times, has been further elevated by Harristown’s creation of 250 new apartments in the last five years, including a 28-unit project on Market Square called The Menaker Project. Additionally, Jones credits a move in the direction of affordable housing as being responsible for attracting college grads.
“We took a lot of our student housing off the market a few years ago, renovated it, and put it back on the market as affordable housing,” he exclaims. “So that folks who are making between $15 and $20 an hour can afford those apartments, which is kind of where the sweet spot is that [current mayor] Wanda Williams is looking for.”
“I think you’re seeing a real rebirth of college students coming here after graduation. There was just an article in Pennlive, and it was saying that we were second in the country with regard to places for college graduates. St. Louis was first, and we were second!”
“It’s a wonderful place to live, and I think we’ve been discovered.”
Exciting news indeed for any Rip Van Winkles who’ve been napping for the past five decades. And we’re excited to recognize the efforts that Harristown has undertaken to make Harrisburg a more attractive city to people of all ages and income levels by selecting Jones as our Influencer of the month.
Seeing the trees through the forestry
Call Jones a “woodhead” and he won’t be offended. The Cedar Cliff grad majored in Forestry at Penn State, and that’s a name that was traded affectionately by his fellow forestry students. So, it’s no surprise that, after earning his degree, Jones was soon hired as Head of the Hardwood Development Council at the PA Department of Agriculture, a position he playfully refers to as Chief Woodhead. For 3 ½ years Jones would work to promote Pennsylvania forest products, including furniture. But Jones’ vision for his future wasn’t solely focused on trees and wood.
“I figured I wasn’t going to stay at the State too long,” he recalls. “It wasn’t quite entrepreneurial enough for me. And then the former president of the company [Harristown] called me one day and said ‘hey, would you consider coming over here?’ So, it was just ‘wow,’ to get a chance to come in and rebuild the downtown here, in my hometown, it was great stuff. A dream come true.”
That dream would begin as a project management position in 2000 (“sort of economic development work with the state,” he says), and within five years he was promoted to Vice President for Community Development. This would lead to “a little higher-level work with more of the senior execs,” which would put him on the radar for an even bigger promotion in 2015.
“When my boss decided to retire, he recommended me for the presidency,” remembers Jones. “And the board agreed, and so I was feeling very fortunate to get that opportunity. So, this is my 8th year as President and CEO.”
Ideally, an idealist (with ideas)
The idealism – and the great ideas – started long before Jones assumed leadership at Harristown. On the one hand, he appreciates and admires all the development projects the company shepherded through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, and, on the other, he is proud to be serving as a shepherd himself for a myriad of 21st century projects.
In the early days, there were the signature projects like Strawberry Square (two phases: 1979 & 1989) and the Hilton Harrisburg (1990), two of the most recognizable and enduring structures in the downtown landscape. And much of the early redevelopment of the capitol city was done with the avid support of late Mayor Steve Reed, who was very helpful in building both the Hilton and the Whitaker Center.
“We had a great relationship with Mayor Reed,” recalls Jones. “When I got here, he was always very supportive. If you knew the mayor, there’s nothing he loved more than a project. You would bring a project over to him in his office, and ten minutes later he would tell you about your project and it would sound better than what you just told him. He was very talented with regard to envisioning a project. He was a visionary.”
The vision – and mission – at Harristown has both stayed the same and evolved over the years. As always, says Jones, “we try to approach what we do here asking ‘are we making the city a better place every day?’ But we also want to be able to do that in a way that is sustainable, because every dollar we make we put back into a future project.”
Eds, beds, meds … and peds
In a 2018 interview with Blueprint, Jones was eager to talk about what was then a new strategic direction for the city, one which he was eager to lead his staff of over 150 employees in implementing. Something that he liked to call “Eds, Beds, and Meds.”
For “Eds” (or Educational development) … Jones cites new Harrisburg University projects, including a new 100-million-dollar Health Sciences Building at 3rd and Chestnut streets, and also the school’s leasing of the old Hallmark gift store for the new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; the Messiah Harrisburg Institute branch; the Capital Area School for the Arts (CASA), a current “anchor tenant” that took over the entire third floor at the Square in 2020; and also the expansion of on-site daycare within the downtown educational corridor.
For “Meds” (or Medical care development) … there’s the Rite Aid at Strawberry Square (“our biggest retail tenant,” exclaims Jones); UPMC Family Care, the first doctor’s offices in the Square; plus, starting this August, the opening of the Shady Side Nursing School, also inside Strawberry Square, “for 16-month, straight-thru, 200 nurses the first year, 400 the second year,” says Jones.
And, for “Beds” (or Residential housing) … there are the aforementioned 250 new apartments in five years, including 24 luxury apartments with 15-foot ceilings at Strawberry Square; plus affordable housing projects for recent graduates. But to truly appreciate the depth and scope of what Jones classifies a “rip-roaring” market for “beds,” visit Harristown’s real estate brokerage firm at www.hbgrealty.net. “We are literally leasing anything we put up,” says Jones. “You know, it’s gone in a few days.”
All of which leaves us with an adjunct to Jones’ strategy, first hinted at in the same 2018 interview: “Peds,” or Pedestrian safety project development. In addition to current efforts by the City of Harrisburg to make both State Street (heading West into the city) and Second Street safer for pedestrians, Jones is pleased with the past administration’s “whole redo of Third Street, from basically downtown, Chestnut, all the way up to North of Maclay.”
“That beautified the city, it beautified the corridor, and it also really changed the pedestrian mobility issues for the better, 100 percent,” says Jones. “One of the things in our downtown that’s so wonderful is it’s so walkable.”
And soon to be more “cyclable,” too. In addition to proposed bike lanes on State and Second Streets, Tri-County Planning recently announced plans to relaunch its highly popular Bike Share Program, which was suspended during the pandemic.
As anyone with a background in forestry will tell you, planting trees – or anything that grows – is about much more than the actual planting. There’s also a lot of tending and nurturing, something which isn’t lost on Jones on a personal level, whose three children will be wishing him a “Happy Father’s Day” again this month. He and his wife, Robin, have tried to teach their kids to be both independent and make good decisions. “And” adds Jones, “remember to reach back behind you and help others along the way.”
As a former Chief Woodhead, Jones also admits to being “lucky enough to be involved in a number of urban forestry initiatives here in the downtown.” During our interview in his office at Strawberry Square, he pridefully asks us to look out the window to see the many trees he’s had a hand in planting. “I really love urban forestry,” he says, “and nothing is more beautiful to me than a nice little block of shops that’s nicely married with some really nice mature street trees. We’ve got a couple of blocks like that that are really nice. It’s a beautiful tree-friendly city.”
As the sitting President and CEO of Harristown Development Corporation, Jones is fearless in setting both short and long-term development goals for the city he loves.
“I think our goal for the next year is to try to understand where this ‘work from home’ issue is headed. And how that will impact the city. We’ve spent the last 10 years really focused on building residences, and the last 5 physically building them. And we know there’s probably a lot more to do on that, because office demand is slow, to put it mildly … and we think there’s going be some retraction of office demand as people’s leases start to come up, and they start to look and wonder ‘do I need the 10 thousand square feet that I had.’”
“I think in the next 10 years, I see this as a great city. I think it’s a good city now, I think it could be a great city. We just gotta keep each little thing – every coffee shop, every restaurant, every new apartment complex, every new entertainment venue, every new public place to recreate – all those things are part of that puzzle that make for a great city. I think we have a lot of those components.”
“There’s a lot of great stuff coming.”