It wasn't all that long ago. There was no "Restaurant Row" or really much of anything to keep young professionals in the capital city after 5 p.m.
"It was a social wasteland," said Greg Rothman, president and CEO of Lemoyne-based RSR Realtors, reflecting on the downtown landscape in the latter part of the 1990s.
Rothman grew up in the area and said he always knew he would be coming back to Central Pennsylvania after college to join the family business.
He was in the minority. Most of his college-educated friends vowed not to return, he said.
Larger metropolitan areas — Baltimore and Philadelphia, for example — had thriving social scenes full of downtown restaurants, bars and other nightlife. Harrisburg was a victim of "brain drain."
"Looking back, Harrisburg had a worse reputation outside of the city limits than it does now," Rothman said, referring to the city's current fiscal challenges that revolve heavily around its debt-laden waste-to-energy plant.
In 1998, a subcommittee of the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania began discussing how to combat the brain drain. That group included Rothman and four friends — Alex Hartzler, Eric Morrison, John Norton and Dan Schwab.
Taking the "if you build it" page out of the "Field of Dreams" playbook, the five 20- and 30-somethings set out to create an organization that would give young professionals a way to network with like-minded peers while helping to rebuild the region's urban core.
That organization was Harrisburg Young Professionals, which formed in the spring of 1998.
"We all knew each other. We all knew we were committed to the region," said Morrison, an attorney with Harrisburg-based McNees Wallace and Nurick LLC.
Relying on their social and professional circles, the five founders held mixers to sell the concept of a civic-minded organization that could promote Harrisburg as a great place to live, work and play.
They presented the idea to a small group of friends who then brought someone to the next gathering. After a few social events, there were lines out the door of places like Stock's on 2nd at happy hour.
"When we got to 100 members, we thought it was tremendous," said Hartzler, managing partner of Harrisburg-based WCI Partners LP, a real estate development company.
None of the founders thought the organization would ever get above 500 members. Today it has more than 1,500, plus many others who participate in its successful year-round sports leagues.
"We just thought it would be an organization where we could do things in the community and serve as a catalyst for some social events," said Norton, president of Harrisburg-based Access Equity Partners, which specializes in mid-market private equity mergers and acquisitions. "We wanted to highlight the area for people coming back from college."
Despite the buzz about HYP and its efforts to improve the look of the city, promote residential and commercial development and tackle other needs, the organization had its early critics.
For starters, there were those who didn't like the name and felt it should be a more regional organization, the founders said.
"It was branded as Harrisburg, and we believed in Harrisburg," said Hartzler, the organization's first president. "We need a group that focuses on the city and does projects that people can see."
The city-centric focus helped build a critical mass of young professionals, which would spur a bevy of downtown development within the first five years.
That captive audience continues to entice visionaries willing to take a chance on Harrisburg. New dining and nightlife spots are still popping up annually. Housing projects also are ongoing throughout pockets of the city, with the highest noticeable concentrations in the Midtown area.
"As we became successful, quickly there were a lot of established organizations and economic development agencies that wanted us to come underneath them," Morrison said.
It was a difficult decision early on to maintain independence, he said.
"When they started, there was no Restaurant Row, and downtown was desolate," said Meron Yemane, the organization's current president. "There was little belief in the city to lead the region. However, through HYP, it became known that was not true."
The organization was built with the right foundation, said Schwab, co-president of Harrisburg-based D&H Distributing Co. Inc.
"We knew it was a marathon, not a sprint," he said, noting the frequency with which issues crop up that can challenge a city such as Harrisburg.
Much like 15 years ago, Harrisburg is at an inflection point due to its financial woes, Schwab said. There is potential for it again to spring forward.
HYP is as important, if not more important, today, he said.
"It's a beacon of the community and a positive light in a city that's had a lot of challenges," Schwab said.
The strength of the organization is the annual emergence of new leadership, which brings a different perspective and vision, the founders said.
"The real success comes from new entrants each year," Schwab said, calling that the "shot in the arm" and motivator that the organization needs to continue growing.
HYP's multifaceted approach starting out — being more than just a social organization — also has contributed to its longevity.
"The social committee is the glue that holds it together, but we knew we also needed economic development, city living and city beautification," Morrison said.
There are nine committees in all.
"You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't know what HYP is," said Joe Massaro, general manager of the Hilton Harrisburg, one of the early anchors in the downtown's revival. "HYP has its hands in so many projects."
Massaro came on as chairman of the board of advisers in 2012.
Business owners and those patronizing a downtown establishment want warm, welcoming neighborhoods, he said. Between outreach projects and streetscape work to its sports leagues that bolster economic activity, HYP has helped create that environment, he said.
"Things are very organic. Ideas come from within the membership," he said. "This is not a top-down organization. It's an organization that rallies around a person or an idea."
Massaro said he was so impressed by the enthusiasm and talent within the volunteer organization that the hotel began paying organization dues in 2012 for its employees.
"It makes for a better leader by having the opportunity to work with a wide range of individuals from different backgrounds, cultures and areas of expertise," he said.
Today, all of the founders are in their 40s. Each of them stays active and serves to advise current leadership or rally those now well-established networks to back beautification projects and other organization initiatives.
"It wasn't about me. It wasn't about any one of us," Hartzler said. "It's having a broad-based support group that believes Harrisburg's better days are ahead."
Taking an active role in organizations such as HYP helps build a lot of trust and civic pride within the community, he said. HYP exposes people to new opportunities and helps them develop better leadership skills, which translates to the professional side.
HYP is an institution, one that has facilitated a spirit of camaraderie in the business community, Hartzler said.
"We're competitors, but also friends," he said. "Your success can be my success. We all do well when we all do well."
HYP could see further growth through the types of projects it chooses to take on, Norton said, citing the importance of partnerships that could spur downtown startup companies and grow the tax base.
The organization has the flexibility to morph on an annual basis or longer as the needs of the city change, Morrison said.
"You have got to keep bringing in new people with new ideas and expertise," Rothman said. "That's what every organization needs to do."
The city's financial struggles and challenges within the school district, as well as development, are all interrelated issues, Schwab added.
"If Harrisburg prospers, HYP prospers, and vice versa," he said.
HYP can't solve all the city's problems, but the organization has the ability to raise spirits and awareness of the issues and maximize community involvement, Schwab said. That could help accelerate recovery efforts.
"Other organizations look at our board members," Yemane said, noting that HYP is often the breeding ground for community servants. "It provides people with a chance to lead, network or find what they are looking for out of this area."
HYP is in constant contact with employers about retaining quality talent and ensuring that Harrisburg stays competitive in attracting new professionals, he said.
"There is a constant need for new talent," Morrison said. "A lot of what the organization is about is developing talent. This is real-world leadership training."
Until the summer of 2011, Harrisburg Young Professionals was run entirely by a volunteer board of directors, advisers and various committee chairs.
But with continued growth in membership — more than 1,500 today — the organization hired Renee Custer as a part-time business administrator.
The James Madison University graduate became the organization's full-time executive director at the end of 2012; she is tasked with overseeing the daily functions of HYP's nine committees and managing memberships.
"As a young professional myself, I feel that I'm in touch with the needs and desires of our target population," said Custer, 23. "I'm dedicated to our community and definitely ready to take on the new role."
Custer said she expects continued growth in the sports leagues. She also said HYP is planning to dive into some bigger community projects moving forward.
In the past, the organization has led efforts on City Island and helped improve the look of the State Street median.
"We know we need people out in the community speaking to other community leaders and organizations," she said. "We want to make sure HYP stays in the forefront."
The social events and networking will always be important aspects of the organization, she said. However, community outreach and making sure the city is an attractive place for residents and businesses are the driving forces today.
"While it may have started as social in nature, it has definitely grown to be much bigger than that," Custer said. "We do have opportunities to make a real impact. It's critical that we keep our eye on what has driven us over the past 15 years."
HYP started more as a way to get homegrown talent to move back or stay in Harrisburg. Today there is greater emphasis on retaining the talent, which also is coming in from outside the area, President Meron Yemane said.
"What (the founders) did was bring other great people to this area," he said. "And we've been able to retain them."
Home municipality: Harrisburg
Current job title and company: Managing partner, WCI Partners LP; first president of HYP
Job and company when HYP was founded: Attorney, Buchanan Ingersoll P.C. (now Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney P.C.)
What would you say is HYP's biggest accomplishment to date? Demonstrating via its various endeavors — such as tree planting and home tours — that there is a dedicated group of young people who care about Harrisburg and are willing to work to make it a better place to live, work and play.
How did the formation of HYP help you in your own business endeavors? How did it help craft your leadership style today? HYP has helped to demonstrate that Harrisburg has many interesting, creative and talented people who live and work here. Many of my employees, friends and neighbors have been involved with HYP, and it has helped us recruit and retain talented people as employees and as clients of our real estate development company.
HYP gave me an opportunity at a relatively young age to lead an organization, implement a vision and interact with a wide variety of community and government leaders as well as the media. All those skills are useful in my current job and career.
Home municipality: Hampden Township
Current job title and company: Attorney, McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC
Job and company when HYP was founded: Attorney, Smigel Anderson & Sacks LLP
What would you say is HYP's biggest accomplishment to date? Serving as a primary catalyst for the emergence and growth of Restaurant Row in downtown Harrisburg.
How did the formation of HYP help you in your own business endeavors? How did it help craft your leadership style today? The formation of HYP coincided with the formative years of my legal career. The convolution of being thrust into a community leadership role and exposed to the Harrisburg region's business, government and nonprofit leadership, as my legal career commenced, proved to be a solid foundation upon which to launch and grow a regional legal practice.
Forming HYP was an entrepreneurial endeavor. Being organized, prepared, creative, strategic and honing the art of effective delegation are but some of the skills learned during the formative years of HYP that have shaped both my professional career and leadership style.
Home municipality: Harrisburg
Current job title and company: President, Access Equity Partners
Job and company when HYP was founded: CEO, Paradyme Corporate Advisors
What would you say is HYP's biggest accomplishment to date? Being a positive, lasting force for change for 15 years.
How did the formation of HYP help you in your own business endeavors? How did it help craft your leadership style today? HYP helped me network with community and business leaders. Serving on the board taught me patience and to consider other points of view.
Home municipality: Silver Spring Township
Current job title and company: President and CEO, RSR Realtors
Job and company when HYP was founded: Sales associate, RSR
What would you say is HYP's biggest accomplishment to date? Promoting Harrisburg as a great place to live, work and play.
How did the formation of HYP help you in your own business endeavors? How did it help craft your leadership style today? It taught me how to lead a diverse group of dynamic people who shared a common goal.
Home municipality: Lower Paxton Township
Current job title and company: Co-president, D&H Distributing Co. Inc.
Job and company when HYP was founded: Education division manager, D&H
What would you say is HYP's biggest accomplishment to date? Being a catalyst for the urban regentrification of downtown Harrisburg, and for staying relevant and vibrant enough to help lead Harrisburg through its next evolution from the financial crisis.
How did the formation of HYP help you in your own business endeavors? How did it help craft your leadership style today? It created a strong foundation to build on. HYP brings in future leaders and gives them responsibility. It's about having a long-term vision with outstanding short-term execution.
Home municipality: Susquehanna Township
Job title and company: Financial adviser, Morgan Stanley Wealth Management; HYP president, 2012 and 2013
What would you say is HYP's biggest accomplishment to date? Our biggest accomplishment is the revitalization of Harrisburg as a cool place to live, work and play. We are now an effective force of positive change in Harrisburg, and it is due to the fact we have successfully grown our membership, developed leaders, value our partnerships, become a catalyst for community outreach, a trusted resource for mentorship and an outlet for co-ed sports and physical wellness.
Home municipality: Harrisburg
Job title and company: Executive director, HYP
What would you say is HYP's biggest accomplishment to date? The list of various programs and community-impacting projects successfully executed by HYP over the last 15 years is remarkable. While any one program or project from this list could be argued as HYP's most successful accomplishment, I believe that its most notable accomplishment extends beyond programs and projects and lies within the culture and reputation it has established as Central Pa.'s premier young professional organization; a group of young people who truly care about Harrisburg, are dedicated to its success and devoted to creating a lasting positive impact in our community.