By M. Diane McCormick
Photography by Donovan Roberts Witmer
Susquehanna Style | June 2019
Jonathan Bowser remembers going to the corner store for his grandparents and, on the way, stopping at the homes of six neighbors to see what they needed. His family ties to Steelton date to the early 1900s. The little borough with the big heart “was home to me,” he says. “My family, we were Rollers,” says Bowser. As in Steelton-Highspire High School Rollers, the idolized teams as fierce as the town’s steel-hardened residents. “This is a town that has a lot of pride, especially in sports. It’s a community that’s close-knit, where everyone knew each other.” The Steelton of Bowser’s memory took a hit as Big Steel dwindled. But belief in the borough has never waned. Now, all aspects of Steelton society are calling on their famous pluck to mobilize around a vision of revitalization. The centerpiece is the Steel Works, planned for a largely vacant lot on Front Street. It started with a request for submissions from the Dauphin County Redevelopment Authority, seeking developers interested in buying and rehabbing the site. Bowser stepped up. The managing partner of Integrated Development Partners “always had an itch to come back home.” His involvement put an insider’s stamp on a project meant to show that Steelton still has bootstraps to pull itself up with.
Dauphin County Commissioners have provided local, state, and federal funding to keep redevelopment moving through infrastructure improvements and remediation.
“None of us in Steelton were born with silver spoons,” says Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick, known to all as a Steelton native who would not have wanted a childhood anywhere other than this diverse town. “In Steelton, we may fight like hell with each other and be straight shooters, but no one ever messes with us.”
Eschewing the trendy boutiques and loft apartments usually central to redevelopment, the plan zeroes in on necessities. The complex, aiming for its first completed buildings by May 2020, is expected to include a health care facility, grocer, child care center, and brewpub. The blueprint incorporates views from community leaders, while also drawing on Bowser’s knowledge of the town.
“Sometimes, developers focus on attracting outside folks and what those outside people want to see,” he says. “Before you can go there, you have to focus on the basic services that are needed for the people who actually live there and who make this town run.”
The hoped-for child care facility provides the opportunity to tackle early childhood education and prepare Steelton’s kids for kindergarten entry and school success. It’s a step on Steelton- Highspire School District’s trajectory from academic struggles to, now, exceeding academic growth expectations.
“I believe deeply that’s where it starts,” says Bowser. “You have to invest in children early. We have started to have conversations with the school district. How do we better support the school system? How do we better support kids and give them outlets, especially in their early childhood?”
The six-acre complex will also feature a Mexican restaurant and grocer, now on the site and expected to relocate into the newly-built complex after demolition of its current building. A park and amphitheater will host summer concerts and “things that bring people back to the community,” says Bowser. Visitors will park in 260 spaces. Seventy units will offer affordable housing for the elderly and the disabled.
And of course, “you cannot not have a brewpub here in Steelton,” says Bowser. The town that once hosted “19 churches and 21 bar rooms,” in Hartwick’s words, now has few taprooms to its name.
“This presents a good business opportunity to do it right,” says Hartwick. “You get clientele up here that may present more of a reinvestment opportunity for Steelton generally.”
Hopes are high for spillover investment, inspired by the Steel Works’ success, in the hard-hit surrounding buildings. Hartwick sees a model for inside-out reinvestment by locals in older communities throughout Dauphin County, where agriculture remains the top industry.
“God doesn’t make any more green earth,” he says. “We can’t keep agriculture if we’re going to build ourselves out of this community. If we can reinvest and redevelop our communities and redefine our future, that would be the smartest type of growth we could ever have, but it doesn’t come without a cost.”
There’s “no blueprint for an old steel town” to revitalize, says borough council president Brian Proctor, but council is working the levers of redevelopment. Granting tax abatement, cracking down on absentee landlords, seeking state help through collaboration with Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (a former steel town mayor), and even starting a pilot program to reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana—all are meant to create a welcoming atmosphere and restore community pride, he says.
Proctor is behind another element of the Steelton renaissance, transforming underutilized tennis courts into a popular skate park. He got the idea when Dauphin County Commissioner Jeffrey Haste issued a challenge. In a month, Proctor was “sitting in his office with a plan.” Revitalization, Proctor says, “just takes time.” “I think everybody expects things to be done overnight. It didn’t get this way overnight.” After all, he adds, Steelton “owns a special place in people’s heart[s].”
“JUST LIKE ITS HISTORY, WHEN YOU COUNT STEELTON OUT, THEY’RE AT THEIR BEST.” The entirety of Steelton is behind the Steel Works, says Hartwick.
The town is “made up of so many levels of people engaged to support this community. We’re in. We need to redefine our future.” Everywhere Hartwick goes, someone tells him they’re from Steelton. Maybe the town is different today, but “our experiences aren’t, and neither is our love for the town,” he says. “Give us areas on to be prideful, and you’d be surprised at how many people want to go back to Steelton.” The Steelton diaspora “will have to” support the comeback, he adds. “Just like the town, just like the sports teams, just like its history, when you count Steelton out, they’re at their best.”