Arts & Culture

Discover All Things Regional in Central PA’s art and culture scene. Join hosts Cary Burkett and Joe Ulrich as they make artistic discoveries throughout the midstate. From music and visual arts to theatre, museums, literature and more! Listen every Wednesday and Friday on witf 89.5 and 93.3 for features highlighting the best and brightest cultural happenings in the region.

Re-Making Midtown

Written by Cary Burkett, Arts & Culture Desk and WITF Host | Mar 24, 2016 11:17 AM
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The Millworks


Josh Kesler is the owner and developer of the Millworks Restaurant and art gallery in Midtown Harrisburg. But he says he's really just a musician at heart. The guitar is his instrument, and he likes to unwind by playing transcriptions of cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach. It's not easy material, but he has at least 40 minutes of it memorized.

Kesler is also an entrepreneur with an eye for opportunity. He looked at the old Stokes Millwork building in Midtown Harrisburg - a decaying 24,000 square foot industrial structure - and saw an upscale farm-to-table restaurant... artist studios and gallery space.

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Joshua Kesler

After a $2 million redevelopment project, his vision became reality in "The Millworks" - a restaurant and open air biergarten with a locally supplied menu, live music, long corridors full of art for sale and an upper level with 18 artist studios.

The Millworks has now been open for a year, and by all appearances, thriving.  The venue is something of a poster child for all the development taking place in Midtown in the past year.

Larry Binda is a Midtown resident who is co-founder and editor-in-chief of a monthly magazine called The Burg which focuses on Midtown. Binda says that the biggest story in Midtown of 2015 "has been the redevelopment and renaissance of Midtown. It started last January when the Susquehanna Art Museum opened."

This, as Binda points out, was followed by the Millworks in March, Zeroday Brewing Company in April, and later the Kitchen and the Capitol Room at the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center.

The trend toward turning the neighborhood into an arts destination is one that Josh Kesler is actively pursuing. He notes that arts and entertainment has been a key factor in a lot of urban renewal.

"I think that Harrisburg is at that moment now where it can start building on its own success in a way that we've seen Lancaster do," says Kesler. And he feels that Midtown is the best place for it to happen.

With other businesses and organizations, Kesler has formed a loose partnership for strategy and branding called "Destination Midtown".

But there have been some setbacks. The new Susquehanna Art Museum struggled with a funding crisis which threatened to close it. And a planned major redevelopment program known as "Education Row" has stalled.

And then there are some who live in Midtown who feel like they may be being priced out of the neighborhood. The Millworks proudly advertises that it sources its food from local PA farms practicing organic or sustainable methods ...which may be why a cheeseburger there will set you back $14. You can add bacon for an extra two bucks.

At Zeroday Brewing Company, co-owner and general manager Brandalynn Armstrong says it's a balance between being accessible to the community and keeping the business doors open.

"We have had people come in looking for a $2 pint," she says.

But there are no $2 bottles or draughts available. The beer is all made on site in small batches, and the economics just don't work.

"We really put a lot into that product," says Armstrong, "from the point of starting up the kettles and adding hundreds of pounds of grain into a vat. That takes us in there shoveling, and actually using a snow shovel every time we brew." 

Larry Binda, editor of The Burg, says that the new businesses need to have a return on their investment. He points out that before Kesler came on the scene, the old Stokes Millworks building was empty and dilapidated for decades.

"It took millions of dollars to renovate that building," he says. "HMAC, the same exact situation -millions of dollars."

So where can you find that $2 pint in Midtown? Maybe over at the longtime neighborhood bar, the Third Street Café.

But the City of Harrisburg has been trying to shut down that place for the past year, saying it is a magnet for crime. In the ongoing legal struggle the Café claims that the city really wants to get rid of the bar because it's across the street from the Susquehanna Art Museum, and creates an eyesore for prospective patrons.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse is himself co-owner of the Midtown Scholar Bookstore, a centerpiece of the neighborhood. He doesn't believe that what is happening in Midtown should be called gentrification.

"I believe what's happening," says Papenfuse, "is expanding opportunities for everyone. You know there has been change. But I think that change is bringing jobs and opportunities whether it's in construction or in new housing for people."

Brandalynn Armstrong at Zeroday points out that they created four jobs in the nine months since they have been open and are looking at expanding quickly.

The Millworks is also expanding. They have begun construction on their own onsite brewery to create draughts to be on tap at the Millworks bar. The price for a pint is not yet available, but it will likely run more than two bucks.

In the process of that expansion, the old community is changing, but a new community is rising up. Editor Larry Binda describes it as the re-emergence of the urban village.

 "People know each other," says Binda. "They often help each other. People walk to businesses, coffee shops, breweries, they often walk to work. I walk to work."

During the recent record-breaking snowstorm, Brandalynn Armstrong camped out at Zeroday, in order to keep the place open as a community gathering place.

Larry Binda dropped in and found something like a party going on, with a lot of people he knew and many he didn't. The kind of spontaneous neighborhood gathering and energy was for him, a microcosm of the new community that Midtown is becoming.


Theo and Brandalynn Armstrong, Owners of Zeroday



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