Read the article by William Lehr, Jr. who is the current emeritus director of Whitaker Center's board and chairman of the board of directors at Capital Blue Cross. Learn the history of the project that eventually became the "cultural gem" of downtown Harrisburg and understand the role it was meant to play in the Capital City.
Whitaker Center: Creating A Place to Discover It All
By William Lehr, Jr.
In 2014 Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts will celebrate its 15-year anniversary as the “cultural gem” of downtown Harrisburg.
Since opening its doors on 9/9/99, the Center has welcomed 4 million guests resulting in a $300 million economic impact for the community.
Before Whitaker Center became a reality, there was a need to create a place which promoted science, the arts, and could culturally enrich the downtown area. This common ‘need’ emerged about 25 years ago, when local business and community leaders, along with city planners, art associations, and government officials came together.
There was an early effort to save the State Theater in the late 1960s and create an arts center, but that failed and the building was demolished in 1975. However, spirits were strengthened by the creation of the Greater Harrisburg Movement, now Harristown Development Corporation.
Harristown developed the vision of a center, to be called River Commons, that would link arts groups together, but the community could not agree on exactly how that vision should be realized. Later the name was changed to People Place, which would be an incubator for the arts groups. It would build on the achievements of Women in the Arts, the Greater Harrisburg Arts Council, art camps, and the Noontime Showcase.
By 1980, it was decided People Place should become independent of Harristown. Eventually, the group took a new name as functions were shifting more towards arts advocacy under the leadership of Mim Warden. This was the start of MetroArts, a nonprofit that would coordinate arts planning and fundraising.
By 1986, MetroArts called Strawberry Square home, which was where they announced in 1989 the “Cultural Connections: A Cultural Plan for the Capital Region.” It was the Cultural Plan that contained the official proposal for a new center for arts, science and education. The center would contain a fine arts museum, a new home for the Museum of Scientific Discovery, and a 400-600-seat theater with workshop, rehearsal, and studio space.
The Cultural Plan engaged those persons who were essential to the eventual success of Whitaker Center. I am proud to be able to say I was part of that steering committee which also included William Alexander, Rev. Clarice Chambers, Miles Gibbons, Jr., Mack Granderson, Charles Merrill, Drew Allen Miller, Sondra Osler, Paul Serff, Glen Shell, Conrad Siegel, Robert Sloane, chairman Edward First, Jr., Esq. and vice chairman Harold McInnes.
Next former Mayor Steven Reed formed a task force to guide fundraising and development efforts. The task force included Russell Ford, Lois Lehrman Grass, Mim Warden, William Warren Esq., Richard Willey, chairman Harold McInnes and me. Dr. Thomas Stone was soon brought on board to lead the task force staff and would eventually serve as the first president and CEO.
Initial funding in the form of generous grants from the City of Harrisburg and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania were obtained. Other forward-thinking individuals, foundations and corporations began to provide gifts to the Leadership Gifts Campaign under the honorary chairmanship of Alex Grass. Over the years, much work, many people, hundreds of businesses, thousands of hours of planning and millions of dollars of funding gave strength to the dream. In September 1997, ground was broken on the corner of Third and Market Streets in downtown Harrisburg and Whitaker Center, a $52.7 million public-private partnership, was born.
But Whitaker Center is much more than just a Performance Theater, IMAX Theater or Science Center – it’s about creating special moments. Children can discover how learning can happen outside the classroom. Families can journey to all corners of the globe on the giant screen. And, live music lovers are treated to edge-of-your-seat performances. It’s all about offering experiences that create memories.
Whitaker Center is a regional asset that needs to be supported for continued success. We need support from the community in general, whether it’s from real dollars right now, or better yet, from endowment dollars. Did you know one out of three operating dollars needs to come from donations?
Whitaker Center became a reality thanks to the support of many visionaries throughout Pennsylvania and the surrounding region. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the City of Harrisburg and Dauphin County as well as more than 300 corporations, foundations and individuals, have invested in Whitaker Center, a cultural center which directly impacts the area in which they live, work or serve.
William Lehr, Jr. is an emeritus director of Whitaker Center’s board and chairman of the board of directors at Capital Blue Cross.