HARRISBURG — Harrisburg Mayor John McPeek and Fire Chief John Gunning are on a mission to clean up Harrisburg.
Through a series of actions designed to rid the city of its derelict properties, the two hope to ultimately restore those properties to the tax rolls.
McPeek became a city commissioner in 2003. He was serving as the finance commissioner and mayor pro tem when he was appointed the city's new mayor after Dale Fowler’s resignation in 2016. Fowler resigned after he was elected state senator for the 59th Senate District in the November 2016 general election.
Gunning has served in the Harrisburg City Fire Department for 28 years and was promoted to chief in January 2015.
The two have been working diligently for two years to establish a system where vacant, abandoned and derelict properties are identified and cleaned up.
“When I became chief we took a very aggressive stand because the town was getting dirty and rundown," Gunning said. "McPeek and I took an aggressive approach on that and have been going after violations left and right.”
Gunning said the process started several years ago with the adoption of a dangerous building ordinance, which in turn allowed the city to establish a rental inspection program. The rental inspection program allowed the city to determine whether or not a building met certain basic conditions.
“When a landlord wants to rent out a property they own in the City of Harrisburg, they have to have a pre-inspection before the water is turned on," Gunning said. "What this does is safeguard the occupant moving into that home. They will know that the house is up to certain standards and conditions.”
Gunning said that if the house is not up to code, they prohibit the owner from doing business until those standards are met. “Whether that is plumbing, electrical, structural, garbage and debris, abandoned vehicles — they have to clean everything up before the water is turned on.”
Gunning said not turning the water on restricts what can be done with a property.
Most of the time, Gunning said, they are met with a very good response.
“I have a list I monitor, and if a property gets out of hand, I contact the owner personally and I give them 15 days to do something with their property," he said. "If nothing is done at that point, then the city will petition for demolition”
McPeek added that “at that point, most of the time they deed the property over to the city. The program we have established keeps everything in-house. The Street and Alley department workers go in and tear down the houses, and then we turn around and sell the property.”
Gunning said that since he became chief, the city has taken down about 45 houses.
“When I go look at a house, if more that 50 percent of its value is gone, we demo it," Gunning said. "If there is more that 50 percent of its value left intact, then we consider it for the possibility of rehabilitation.”
If the city does agree to sell a property for rehabilitation, Gunning said the new owners have six months to make good on their agreement. After six months, the property is re-evaluated and if the new owner is making progress, the city will issue an extension. If there is no evidence of work being done, the property reverts back to the city and they can resell or demolish it.
“And we have got a long way to go,” Gunning said, “There are now areas that look really good. But there are areas where it doesn’t look like we are doing anything. That is not the case. We are hitting those areas in pockets trying to get the worst of them out first.”
The most recent example of this is the city’s cleanup of the old Malan Junior High School, a sprawling building that takes up an entire block between West Church and West South streets in the city’s center.
McPeek said the building was owned by the school district and sold to a church about a decade ago. The church operated a school out of the building for some years before selling to a developer who intended to turn the complex into apartments.
“I think once they got in there and saw the level of work they were going to have to do, I think they just gave up, so for the last five to six years it sat vacant and it went to hell," McPeek said. “We’ve had it in our sights for a while because a derelict building of that size can invite all sorts of chaos.
"We were really lucky recently to have and offer of support from Sheriff Brown from the Saline County Sheriff’s Department, who offered to bring in some of his work crews to deal with the overgrown brush and trash on the outside of the building."
McPeek said now that the building is exposed, they are getting a lot of inquiries from the general public who feel nostalgic for the school they once attended and are hoping to get inside for a look.
“Unfortunately, we can’t let them do that," he said. "Conditions are just too hazardous.”
Gunning said that he has checked in with the federal and state EPA, but staffing issues for those departments mean cleanup will fall back to the city. McPeek said that he and Gunning will work to get the building demolished as soon as possible.
Harrisburg has no shortage of future projects. Gunning said they have one building they hope will become studio apartments.
“We took possession of one building uptown that is a perfect candidate for rehab," he said. "And are actively working with a company on that. “
And, he said, they have another building that is a good candidate for rehabilitation that should come before council at the next meeting.
“We don’t have the advantages of being a Home Rule form of government, which means we do not have the right to administer and set our own sales tax rules and rates," McPeek said. "We can’t just go out and tax this or that. We have to rely on resale tax and property tax. And so basically what we are trying to do is revitalize the tax base.”
Gunning said the livelihood of city workers rests on that tax base, and so if the city can revitalize the tax base, that will affect the city and the county in a positive way.
“We set this program up to be self-sustaining," Gunning said. "When a building or a lot sells, we put that money back into the general fund for the city. The following year, if we have more projects, we can renegotiate the amount of money we need for the dangerous buildings fund."
McPeek said he is proud of how aggressive the city has been handling this and how much support he and Gunning feel for the program.
“We have been successful enough that we have been able to appoint a new code enforcement officer, Dave Williams," McPeek said. "We swore him in so he can now write tickets.”
As a result of their efforts, there have been properties donated to the city which, once cleaned up, have been purchased by small businesses, like the Wilson Door Company on Church Street.
“We are lucky to have some smaller businesses that are busting at the seams and need to expand," McPeek said. "We are trying to help relocate them within the city so they can expand their business and add staff.”
Following their lead
The work in Harrisburg doesn’t stop at its own doorstep.
Gunning said there are two other nearby communities who have noted the success in Harrisburg and want to follow in its footsteps.
"I am sharing all our paperwork and our ordinances and our codes, everything we do here, and I am going to personally go walk them through that program to help them get up and running,” he said.
Public Property Commissioner Mike Wierauch said that because of the efforts of Gunning and McPeek, Harrisburg is ahead of many other communities who are struggling to address issues created by the last decade of financial hardship.
“That hardship has left a trail of dilapidated buildings and properties in its wake," Wierauch said. "But we are fortunate to have a man like Gunning who has jumped in and taken the bull by the horns. He is the push and the drive behind this program, and he is setting a good example for any community to follow. He is a fair, honest man and the city is fortunate to have him. ”
McPeek said he wants people to be encouraged, and to take pride in their property and city. He is available during regular office hours on Tuesday and Thursday from 8 to 10 a.m.
Additionally, residents with concerns about derelict property are encouraged to contact the mayor’s office at 618-252-1937, the fire chief at 618-253-4121 or download the appropriate from the city’s website at www.thecityofharrisburgil.com/public-affairs-department.