HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — This capital city was near total collapse three decades ago — its department stores, theaters and trolleys were gone, replaced by vacant buildings and streets devoid of any nightlife.
A huge effort, thanks partly to an energetic mayor, brought the Susquehanna River city of 47,000 back from the brink. Today, professionals and state office workers pack the restaurants, hotels and arts venues that helped restore its respectability.
Along the way, city leaders thought they could transform their aging, debt-laden trash incinerator into a clean, efficient moneymaker. But costs exploded and massive debt payments due this year on the incinerator threaten to drag the city into bankruptcy.
So grim is the situation that Moody’s Investors Service has branded Harrisburg with the lowest credit rating of any of its 3,500-plus rated municipalities that have not defaulted, hurting the city’s ability to finance civic improvements without paying sky-high interest rates.
Some residents wonder whether fear of a huge property tax hike to help pay down the $280-plus million in debt tied to the incinerator will spur a rash of “for-sale” signs just as the city had hoped to end a 60-year population slide.
“We’re in trouble,” said Bill Cluck, an environmental and land-use lawyer who lives in Harrisburg and closely monitors city affairs. “If you can get out of the city, get out of the city. That’s the perception.”
Harrisburg’s bad credit rating, in part, reflects the stretched finances of a city devastated by the loss of its heavy manufacturing core. Almost half its property is tax-exempt and more than a quarter of its families live in poverty, nearly three times the national rate, census figures show.
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