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Gunfight at the Pa. corral: Mayor wants to bring the Old West east

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

HARRISBURG, Pa. Stephen R. Reed had a dream, unbridled by geography.

He dreamed of a place where families could ride a stagecoach, where they could roam a replica street from Tombstone, Ariz., circa 1881, where they could catch a glimpse of Annie Oakley's cloak or the gun that killed Jesse James.

He dreamed of a National Museum of the Old West.

And he envisioned it ... in Harrisburg, Pa.

Harrisburg, an industrial town which has never seen a tumbleweed or a cowpoke, where the antelope do not play and the buffalo do not roam. Harrisburg, an eastern state capital, 1,937 miles east of Tombstone west only to folks in places like Hershey, Pa.

''So far as we know, Ike Clanton'' the Tombstone rustler and stagecoach robber ''never set foot in the city,'' a skeptical Patriot-News of Harrisburg editorialized.

But Reed had a dream, and he had a knack for making dreams reality, for finding money to build the impossible, bulldozing whatever stood in the way. Harrisburg's chief executive for 22 years, elected six times, he was proclaimed ''mayor for life'' by some.

Last June, he disclosed his plans for a grand Western museum. What's more, he revealed he had already spent more than $4.5 million on 12,000 Western artifacts an astounding amount for a city with a yearly budget of $102 million.

What the mayor wants, the mayor gets, so Harrisburg prepared to put on its chaps and join the ranks of towns with Western museums, places like Virginia City, Nev., and Cheyenne, Wyo.

Except that there have always been those who were troubled by what they saw as the mayor's autocratic methods, and by his inclination for big, splashy projects in a city with so many needs. They'd never been able to stop him before, but this time they were joined by others who could not quite get their minds around one, central issue:

What in tarnation was a National Museum of the Old West doing in Harrisburg?

Each floor of the atrium of Harrisburg's city hall is ringed with ceremonial shovels and sledge hammers from the projects begun under Stephen Reed's leadership badges of honor for a mayor who acknowledges he is not fulfilled by ''the minutiae of governmental administration.''

Surrounded by an Indian headdress and other historical objects in his office, Reed sips from a big glass of cola, chain-smokes cigarettes and expounds on the changes he has made in a city that was among the nation's most distressed when he took office in 1982.

He has attracted more than $3.3 billion in private investment, he says. He has, with the blessing of the state, taken over city schools ranked 500th among the 501 districts in Pennsylvania. He has reformed a system rife with patronage. He has launched the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

He has charged taxpayers and other municipalities to incinerate their trash, and then used heat from the incinerator to make steam, generate electricity and sell it to the power grid.

In the 1980s, he proposed building a dam on the Susquehanna River that would be used to generate hydroelectric power and form a large lake for recreation. The city issued $400 million in bonds to pay for it.

The dam was never built. But using a tactic later outlawed by Congress, Reed took that $400 million, reinvested it at higher interest rates and spent the proceeds to develop City Island, a once-overgrown parcel that eventually was home to 22 recreational facilities, including a baseball stadium for the double-A Harrisburg Senators.

''He's a La Guardia or an Ed Koch, who really has the interests of the city at heart ...,'' says Dale Davenport, editorial page editor of the Patriot-News, invoking two legendary New York mayors. ''He's intoxicated by being Steve Reed and doing things that nobody else has been able to do.''

Tourism, Reed says, is Pennsylvania's second biggest industry, but the tourist dollars went to places like Hershey and Gettysburg and the Pennsylvania Dutch country. Reed decided to build five national museums; together, he says, they would make Harrisburg a destination.

The first to be built was the smallest, the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum. It was followed by the National Civil War Museum an impressive structure built at the city's highest point, full of artifacts and multimedia presentations.

Still to come were the National Sports Hall of Fame, the National Museum of African American History and, finally, the National Museum of the Old West.

''That's absurd,'' thought Jason Smith. ''That won't happen. Somebody will stand up and say that that can't happen.''

Smith runs a design studio in Harrisburg. He had never been politically engaged before, but when he heard about the Old West museum last June, he felt stirrings of activism. Soon, he was an official member of the crowd Reed derides as the naysayers.

The skeptics, Reed says, don't understand that the Western museum would be an appropriate sequel to the Civil War museum, offering insight into the next great formative experience of American history, and would draw families that don't have the opportunity to cross the Mississippi.

Reed, the skeptics say, doesn't understand that Harrisburg would be better served by smaller, locally inspired museums Smith suggests museums devoted to the Susquehanna River or coal mining or the nuclear disaster that was averted at nearby Three Mile Island.

In Harrisburg, everyone agrees the Civil War museum is a beautiful facility, and yet attendance has lagged. Last year it drew only 53,844 visitors. Reed says the target was 70,000, and blames the economy and tourism fallout from the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

As for the Old West museum, critics say it's a product of Reed's own passion for the history of the era. He denies that, but, as with many Reed projects, there was no public input. The mayor merely announced it. Wait for a consensus, he always says, and you'll wait forever.

''I'd say he's a dictator,'' says Wendi Taylor, a former newspaper reporter and one of the mayor's most ardent critics. ''In a democracy, process is everything. When you leave people out of the process, what do you have left?''

What steamed opponents most, though, was how Reed bought a card table from Wyatt Earp's saloon, Doc Holliday's pistol and dental kit, and 12,000 other Western artifacts over the past five years, all without the public's knowledge.

This is how it was done: Every time the independent Harrisburg Authority floats bonds for the Harrisburg school district and other government agencies, it collects a fee and deposits it into an account. The mayor can draw on that account for any capital expense as long as he has the signatures of two members of the authority (all appointed by the mayor).

''All perfectly legal,'' Reed says.

There was occasional criticism ''the mayor's museum fetish,'' groused local blogger Ross Karchner but the Old West museum seemed inevitable until November, when Jason Smith launched his campaign to head it off at the pass.

He started a Web site (www.wildwestmuseum.org), and put out posters featuring a toy horse and the slogan, ''Just say 'neigh' to the Wild West Museum.'' He appeared before the city council with ''Ross Perot flip charts'' to criticize the plan.

Soon, more council members spoke out against the museum. The Patriot-News published letters to the editor that were critical, and editorialized that the money that purchased artifacts could be used instead to avoid a tax increase.

At first, Reed discounted Smith as a naysayer. But then he did something his foes say was unprecedented.

He invited Smith to meet with him.

The 54-year-old politician and the 31-year-old outsider met harmoniously over several weeks. In February, they announced that plans for the museum had been put on hold, while a commission decides whether this or some other museum should be built.

A half-million dollars' worth of the Western artifacts would be sold to fund the commission and another group that would work to integrate the activities of Harrisburg's museums.

The mayor's supporters are not happy. ''An individual ran a well-orchestrated campaign to stop the progression of the museum and has not left the city any better for it,'' complains Fred Clark, a member of the Harrisburg Authority.

But the mayor himself isn't complaining at least not publicly. He still believes the Old West museum is a good idea, and he still believes it will be built.

And even without the museum, he does not lack for things to do. Abandoned buildings line the streets of his city; from its high mark in 1950, when Harrisburg was home to 89,544 people, the population has dropped to 48,950. But this is not the Harrisburg he is bent on creating.

That Harrisburg is more like ... Paris.

''A city of light. Of museums, and light. A city that people want to visit, want to live in, to raise their families in. Yes, I see that as Harrisburg's future. And shame on those who don't,'' he says.

And yes, he has more plans. But as usual, he's keeping them close to the vest.



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