The coronavirus pandemic has forced everyone to adjust.
Businesses ordered employees to work from home and legions of people have embraced online platforms to socialize, dine out and celebrate with family and friends.
Nimbleness is typically a good thing, but when it comes to Harrisburg, drastic changes in the way we do business could test the city’s economic resilience.
If more businesses adopt teleworking, that could translate into fewer people in restaurants, bars and attractions. A less vibrant social scene would not just be a bummer for millennials – it would mean fewer jobs for people in the city and, ultimately, a shrinking tax base.
“I literally believe that it’s up to us what we make out of the future,” said Ron Kamionka, owner of several downtown businesses, including Sawyer’s, Bourbon Street and Susquehanna Ale House.
“If we decide that we are just going to reopen the door and go back to the same-old, same-old, a lot of places probably won’t survive. This is an opportunity to come up with new fresh ideas and create a new vibrancy for downtown that we didn’t have impetus for before.”
Like hundreds of other businesses in the city, Kamionka’s restaurants and bars have been shuttered since Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a statewide shutdown in March amid the escalating public health crisis.
Kamionka has stepped aside as other eateries pivoted to delivery and curbside pickup trade, but he has used the lull in business to plot out a recovery strategy.
Coronavirus pandemic: full coverage
“You can sit back and feel frustrated or you can figure out what you can do in the future to be able to come back,” he said. “I do believe we are going to get a collective push of restaurateurs to come back even better and make the downtown a better destination than it was two months ago.”
The pandemic has certainly battered the Pennsylvania economy, but it could have a greater impact on the Capital City, which faced added vulnerabilities to its economic viability.
Harrisburg had only recently emerged out of a bleak financial crisis. A few years ago it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and the crush of millions of dollars in debt.
After relinquishing its authority to the state, selling its incinerator and leasing out its parking for 40 years, the tide changed. Harrisburg began last year with a multi-million dollar surplus and even kicked off several capital improvement projects – signals that the city had turned a corner.
But its economic engine is arguably fueled by the sizable workforce that comes into the city daily – from legislators, lobbyists, state employees and private sector professionals. That 9-5 workforce, plus the after-hours and weekend tourist trade, have made the city a destination for dining, entertainment and sports.
The economic activity came to a standstill in March. Scores of businesses ordered employees to work from home and restaurants and bars shuttered doors. The impact is being felt everywhere, but perhaps nowhere as severely as among the hundreds of small businesses and restaurants that now teeter on the brink of ruin.
“This is critical,” said Nona Watson, director of Economic Development for Harrisburg, speaking recently during a weekly webinar with Mayor Eric Papenfuse.
The economic shutdown has hit small business owners in Harrisburg hard. Watson said many are desperate; hundreds of business owners have written to her. The narratives are near-identical: Some report sales and volume decreases of more than 65 percent. Many can’t pay bills or make payroll. They have laid off or furloughed employees. Others have simply closed down.
“That is something that we just don’t want to see happen,” Watson said. “We want our businesses to know that we are working diligently. We are trying to do everything we can to stand with you. We are trying to find ways to bring in more funds, trying to connect with other potential partners to see if we can replenish funds. We already know we don’t have enough money to do the things that we want to do.”
Harrisburg is slated to have its partial reopening on Friday as Dauphin County and seven other counties enter the yellow phase May 29 under Gov. Tom Wolf’s gradual reopening plan.
The extent to which the city clings to the adjustments made during the pandemic – the teleworking and online shopping, dining and socializing – will likely determine its ability to recover and rebound.
“I still think there’s a reason for a vital center that a city represents certainly with the magnet that is the Capitol and the courts,” said Chris Bravacos, founder and head of Bravo Group, the largest public relations firm in the state. “That will find its place. Cities that don’t have some of those things certainly might face more challenges.”
Bravacos shuttered his eight-story business operation on North Second Street in Harrisburg in March, and ordered employees to work from home.
Since then, Bravo Group representatives, who manage contracts with energy and utility companies, the health care sector and financial services, have pivoted to teleworking and negotiating face-to-face meetings on Slack, Zoom and Google Meet.
The adjustments have left Bravacos with much to ponder: The company has operated seamlessly outside the traditional time-space limitation. His employees will always have reasons to collaborate in person, but this period has given him an opportunity to rethink workplace models.
“The answer may well be that you contemplate space differently from what you previously had arranged,” Bravacos said. “I don’t think anybody is thinking, “Gosh we never actually have to have everybody together,’ or that the relationship bonds that can form as part of a team could be done without at all…. I do think it’s epiphany for professional service organizations as to what can get done without physical space.”
The strategic use of space will likely also factor in the city’s social scene.
For much of central Pennsylvania, downtown Harrisburg, particularly Restaurant Row, and more recently Midtown too, are popular go-to destinations for dining, happy hour and meet-ups with friends and coworkers.
The pandemic shutdown has underscored a stark reality: “We always knew people could stay home and eat and drink cheaper,” Kamionka said. “Now they have had an opportunity to prove it to themselves.”
In the months to come, as the region emerges from social distancing guidelines, the entertainment and restaurant sectors will need to make adjustments to find a better fit in the new paradigm.
“We have to compromise,” Kamionka said. “We are not going to flip a switch and demand that it’s going to be there the way it was before this pandemic. People are genuinely scared by this. We have to approach this in phases and create different opportunities for people.”
Kamionka is waiting for the final approval from the City of Harrisburg and the Downtown Improvement District to his proposal: To create an outdoor dining area on Walnut Street between 2nd and 3rd streets that would be open to all restaurants. The premise being that patrons order and pay online and take set at a table where a server delivers the meal.
Kamionka said it is one way for restaurants to address post-coronavirus limitations, such as potentially being allowed only 25 percent occupancy.
“There aren’t many large restaurants in downtown,” he said. “It would be tough to remain viable with that few customers. You still have rent, utilities, insurance, people to bring back. All the inherent costs. If you are limited to 25 percent occupancy, you can’t make money.”
Sara Bozich, who manages a special events company and has been writing about the city’s social scene for 20 years, is confident that the city’s social scene will recover – although it might just look and feel different.
“I think in general people are going to be more careful about why and how they gather,” she said. “I think they are going to be more strategic about it. Let’s say we are allowed to proceed as normal, I think we’ll see a huge spike where everyone wants to get out of the house and do something, but I think we’ll level out and we won’t see constant gatherings.”
That may not be so much a function of fear of the coronavirus, but rather an evolution towards a different mode of doing things.
“I think this time may encourage people to slow down a little and be more conscious about how they spend their dollars and time,” Bozich said. “You want to support local businesses but I want to make sure I am going to the ones that speak to me….the ones that are most valuable to me.”
The calculus on Harrisburg’s rebound could come down to the old adage of not appreciating what you have until it’s gone.
The idea of summer nights in Harrisburg without the iconic stadium lights of FNB Field lighting up City Island is poised to change the tenor of the season not only for the Harrisburg Senators but the hundreds of thousands of fans who over the years have made the games a family affair.
Mark Pynes | email@example.com
The Double-A affiliate of the MLB’s Washington Nationals was set to start play April 9 before its FNB Park opener on April 16 but the season was suspended amid the pandemic.
Terry Byrom, the spokesman for the Harrisburg Senators suggested it might give the region food for thought.
“With the Senators, when things go back to normal, maybe people won’t take having it for granted,” he said. “We all take things for granted and maybe we won’t take it for granted anymore.”
Byrom remains upbeat that Harrisburg will embrace its baseball franchise once the city reopens.
“I think once we are fairly certain that this is under control, maybe there will be a vaccine, I think people will eventually go back,” Byrom said. “We hear a lot about the new normal and while I don’t think I can look into the future and say what that means and what we might do differently in terms of the Senators or the NBA or Hershey Bears. It’s hard to say but I think people are pretty resilient and I also think people have short memories. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just think it might take a while but we’ll get back to normal.”
Ultimately, though Harrisburg’s resilience will likely depend on a unified community. That doesn’t just mean a concerted effort to support business, but an equal effort to support its denizens.
“I believe that while the business aspect of things is most important, it is critical that we look at the human standpoint. Our citizens,” Karl Singleton, president and CEO of PA Diversity Coalition, which supports minority women-owned businesses. “We have to figure out a way to incorporate the needs of the community first. What are those businesses that meet the needs of the community?”
He notes the ripple effect of the actions taken by large businesses in the city on smaller ones. For instance, he notes, small, minority-owned commercial custodial service companies will be impacted if larger companies reduce their physical office footprint in Harrisburg.
“You are going to have a lot less buildings and a lot less contracts,” Singleton said.
Hundreds of small businesses had applied for emergency relief through the Neighborhood Business Stabilization Program. The program is available to businesses that are based and licensed in the city, but the demand has been so extraordinary that Watson has encouraged all business owners in Harrisburg to apply.
Papenfuse estimates that roughly 20 percent of the city’s businesses have applied for emergency relief.
Singleton noted that a substantial portion of working-class Harrisburg residents work in the health care sector. With schools and daycare shuttered, the ability of many of those people to continue to work has been compromised.
“Before we start focusing too much on these ‘quote, unquote’ national bailouts or focus on business only, we need to make sure there is equitable balance in assistance for businesses and assistance for consumers,” Singleton said.
Read more pandemic coverage:
Making a go of it: Area restaurant owners staying open (carefully) during coronavirus
You won’t have to smile for the camera to renew your Pa. driver’s license. PennDOT to use old pics
Deer enjoy a walk on vacant Jersey Shore beach: watch
Will your property taxes increase? Pa. schools face potential $1 billion in lost revenue because of coronavirus
Pa. students expected to return to school in fall, ed chief says
Cumberland County barber is back at work, but says there is still a risk: ‘You choose not to come, that’s fine’
What’s allowed when child care centers reopen in Pa. counties? And when should kids wear masks?
Horses and service dogs visit residents of retirement community