City slicker aims for the Old West

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 is an industrial town that 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 is “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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 that 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.

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