Bankrupt Harrisburg holds Wild West auction

  • 16 November 2011
  • From the section Magazine

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is filing for bankruptcy after years of excess borrowing and spending. Will other American cities be forced to do the same?

They may have other things in common, but right now, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Jefferson County, Alabama share a dubious distinction.

Both are in the midst of record-breaking financial woes. And just to keep the headline writers happy, both sets of difficulties stem from costly ventures in waste management.

Populous Jefferson County is saddled with more than $4bn (£2.4bn) in debt, the bad odour emanating from a sewer project that went awry amid allegations of corruption.

In Harrisburg, a small city of 50,000 people groaning under more than $300m (£190m) of debt, the offending project - a waste incinerator - is no less symbolic.

"Everyone says the incinerator is burning the city's future," says Eric Veronikis of the local Patriot News.


Harrisburg's is a long, painful saga of a poorly-managed retro-fit designed to clean up the polluting plant.

Under its current operator, Covanta, the plant is doing what it should: safely burning Harrisburg's trash. But the damage has already been done. An earlier partnership resulted in costly problems and delays.

An acrimonious row over what to do about the debt, involving the mayor, members of the council, creditors and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, will now go before a federal bankruptcy judge.

Pennsylvania is poised to take over.

"Everyone calls Harrisburg the mini-Greece," says Mr Veronikis. "Our finances are not in order. We can't pay back our debt. And we have a higher power telling us what to do."

How does that make people feel?

"It makes them feel very angry. And powerless."

Bond villain

Meanwhile, in a leaky outbuilding of the old incinerator, Harrisburg is preparing to sell off some unlikely treasures.

Around 8,000 artefacts, most associated with the old Wild West, are stacked and scattered throughout the building, gathering dust.

It is a sad, extraordinary sight. From creaking stage coaches to the ghostly skeletons of cacti, there's a bit of everything.

Image caption The possessions and photograph of a prostitute from Tombstone, Arizona are among those up for sale

Gloves that may or may not have belonged to Buffalo Bill. A wanted "dead or alive" poster for Jesse James. A horse's hoof, complete with shoe, from the battle of the Little Big Horn. Gorgeous French duelling pistols. A bag full of undertaker's equipment.

And perhaps most bizarre of all: a vampire-killing kit, complete with pistol, stake, mirrors, crosses and a jar of garlic.

The artefacts were collected by Harrisburg's long-serving former mayor, Stephen Reed, who dreamed of creating a series of museums to attract tourists.

He realised only part of his vision. A huge Civil War museum now sits on a hill, commanding an impressive view over a city where Mr Reed's mixed legacy is on display.

On the plus side: Harrisburg's gleaming science and technology university, and a minor league baseball team.

But set against those achievements is the unfinished shell of the Capitol View Commerce Center, a printing, office and retail facility that gobbled up $17.5m in public money before it ground to a halt three years ago.

"He never met a bond he didn't like," says Harrisburg's city controller, Dan Miller, recalling Mr Reed's 28 years in office.

"He happened to be someone who believed in borrowing money."

The Wild West museum will never see the light of day. Harrisburg is holding a final auction to sell off Mr Reed's collection.

The city hopes to recoup some of the public money - estimated at between $8m and $15m - that Mr Reed spent putting it together. But it will barely make a dent in the city's colossal debts.

Merely a 'microcosm'

"We have to deal with the reality of contemporary times," says Robert Philbin, spokesman for Harrisburg's current mayor, Linda Thompson.

A decade of war and a nationwide recession put paid to Mr Reed's ambitions, Mr Philbin says, adding that Harrisburg is by no means unique.

Image caption The government in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania voted in October to declare bankruptcy

So could other cities face similarly dire prospects?

"Harrisburg's not a harbinger of what's going to be happening with cities in the rest of the country," says Christopher Hoene, of the National League of Cities, a non-profit association of cities and municipal leagues.

"Municipal bankruptcy has historically been rare," he says, noting that since it became a legal option in the 1930s there have only been a few hundred cases across the country.

In recent years, only two other cities - Vallejo, California and Central Falls, Rhode Island - have declared bankruptcy.

But for Harrisburg's long-suffering residents, one-third of whom live below the poverty line, it is hard not to see the city's woes as part of a wider phenomenon.

"Harrisburg's just a small microcosm of what's going on in the United States," says Angela Jenkins, beating a drum at a small Occupy Harrisburg protest camp, down by the slow-moving waters of the Susquehanna river.

"Everything here's starting to collapse, just as it is nationally."

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