Pa.'s Capital Looks To The Wild West To Raise Cash

fromWITF

The debt-saddled city of Harrisburg, Pa., teeters between municipal bankruptcy and a possible state takeover. The city does, however, have some unique Wild West artifacts that could help it get back in the black. Auctioning the items could raise much-needed funds.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

To Pennsylvania now, where the state capital is trying to work out its own financial troubles. The city of Harrisburg is poised between bankruptcy and a state takeover. Though it may be saddled with debt, the capital does have one weapon in its pocket, and that's Wyatt Earp's pistol. Craig Layne of member station WITF in Harrisburg explained how the city hopes to profit from Western nostalgia.

CRAIG LAYNE, BYLINE: OK, so it doesn't have saloon doors, but this room has enough Wild West flair inside to make you think you're in Dodge City. Well, if Dodge City had been hit by a bomb. Roughly 8,000 items are strewn everywhere - a pile of rifles, a stack of sheriff's badges, a stuffed buffalo and even a siren from an old fire brigade wagon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

LAYNE: No one has any idea how much the stuff's really worth. It was intended to be part of a Wild West Museum the former mayor hoped would draw tourists to Harrisburg. The collection cost about $7.8 million to assemble, but it's not the reason the city's facing bankruptcy.

That problem is actually sitting next door to the building where the Wild West collection is housed. It's Harrisburg's trash incinerator - the source of most of the city's financial problems. A botched retrofit on the incinerator has snowballed into a crushing $310 million debt that's landed the city in bankruptcy court and in the crosshairs of a possible state takeover.

Ironically, the retrofit that caused the debt crisis also made it possible to store the Wild West artifacts in one of the incinerator's out-buildings. Harrisburg Public Works Director Ernie Hoch explains.

ERNIE HOCH: With the retrofit, it became obsolete and wasn't needed, so this was just available space that was moved into.

LAYNE: There's no chance of turning this space into a museum. But auctioning off the artifacts could raise much-needed money to help deal with the incinerator's debt. The mayor's conservatively planning for at least $500,000 in profits - a mere buffalo chip in the prairie that is Harrisburg's enormous debt.

Her spokesman says every little bit helps. After all, the artifacts are gaining international attention.

PAUL ADAMS: Paul Adams, World Service correspondent in Washington.

LAYNE: He's a reporter for the BBC - also poking around the artifacts

Harrisburg, a city of about 49,000 people, doesn't usually attract much international attention. But with other American municipalities in financial trouble, more eyes are on the city. Reporters like Adams, and others from across the globe, have been coming here and using the Wild West artifacts as a backdrop to tell Harrisburg's troubled story, to a worldwide audience.

ADAMS: A little sad to see them sitting on shelves where people can't come and appreciate them. And the fact that they're sitting next to your controversial incinerator somehow feels like a metaphor. I'm not quite sure what it is. But...

LAYNE: I haven't figured out how to write that one yet, either.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: I'm sure we both will.

LAYNE: OK, so how's this metaphor? The collection could be Harrisburg's gilded gunslinger, saving the city from the debt desperados.

For NPR News, I'm Craig Layne in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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