Mayor Sciascia Finds Duty Out Of Necessity, Tragedy

Steve Sciascia only wanted to ensure that Harrisburg’s youngest residents could always play organized sports.

He never intended to run for public office – let alone serve 14 years and counting, including the last six as mayor – until realizing that the roughly 3,000 children and teenagers enrolled in the Harrisburg Youth Association in the early 2000s might be left out on the streets if the sports nonprofit ever closed its doors.

Steve Sciascia has served on the Harrisburg Town Council for 14 years, including the last six as mayor.

Mr. Sciascia easily recalls the difficulty in attracting and retaining volunteers to help run the organization, which he described during a recent interview as a $350,000-a-year business overseen by a small group of dedicated people. In addition to dealing with the day-to-day stresses that come with such responsibility, the then-president of the HYA, an organization that dates back to the early 1970s, worried what would happen if he ever stepped down.

“It was literally seven days a week,” Mr. Sciascia said of his volunteer work, explaining that he served as president for seven years, continuing even after his youngest child had aged out of the league. “I got calls all the time … if I was on the field coaching first base for my son’s league, somebody was yelling at me to go do something.”

Still, he fretted that the HYA could eventually fold, prompting him to take action.

Mowing & Motivation

Things were so bad at one point that he had to take his own lawnmower and cut the grass on the fields at Harrisburg Elementary so the kids could play their games there that day. “I actually brought my mower over there and mowed four fields, a couple of acres, with a push-mower because I couldn’t get anyone to do it, or to help with it,” he said.

He eventually approached the Town Council, politely requesting that it consider taking over the HYA, preferably through the establishment of a Parks and Recreation Department.

After getting over the initial shock of their response – “They said, ‘No,’” Mr. Sciascia recalls with a laugh – he filed the necessary paperwork to get on the ballot and, in November 2005, won election to the Harrisburg Town Council for the first time. He would go on to establish the town’s Parks and Recreation Department in the middle of that first four-year term, eventually folding the HYA and its many programs under the new office.   

“That was my whole motivation to run for office, to make sure that the kids had a permanent place to play sports, that was managed forever [by the town] as opposed to volunteers who come and go,” Mr. Sciascia said.

“I actually brought my mower over there and mowed four fields, a couple of acres, with a push-mower because I couldn’t get anyone to do it, or to help with it.”

Harrisburg Mayor Steve Sciascia

Instead of bowing out after that first term, he opted to run for a second in 2009 and found success again. Then, four years later, he made the difficult decision to run for mayor. Mr. Sciascia said he had no expectations of winning that race, explaining that then-mayor Tim Hagler had served on the board for 26 years, including the last 13 as mayor, and was essentially a fixture at Town Hall.

But then the unexpected happened again: Mr. Hagler dropped his reelection bid after only six weeks of campaigning.

“I won by default the first time,” Mr. Sciascia admits, though he had to fend off a challenge to win his second four-year term in 2017. “After that first election, I figured I’d do it again.”

As it turns out, a simple request would inevitably lead to a secondary career in public office, and based on where things are heading these days, the operational risk manager for Wells Fargo has no plans to pull back on the reins anytime soon.

What’s Up Next

The mayor notes that there is much to be excited about, both in the coming months and beyond.

Plans that will essentially double the size of Harrisburg Park are nearing finalization, receiving a significant financial boost with the council’s late June approval of the town’s $70.3 million fiscal budget for 2019-20. Work is expected to begin shortly on the estimated $8 million project that, when completed, will add much-needed multi-purpose fields as well as parking, an amphitheater, biking and walking trails, and other recreational amenities.

He explains that he and his fellow board members responded out of necessity after the public’s narrow rejection of a $21 million parks bond in 2017, the same year he won reelection as mayor. That bond would have paid for even more amenities at the park, which will grow by about 40 acres, including the construction of a new community center. The town purchased the adjoining acreage several years ago, in anticipating of meeting growing demand.

“We’re running out of field space for our kids. We’re going to have to start turning kids away,” Mr. Sciascia said. “We don’t want to turn kids away, especially our own kids in the community because if they don’t have the ability to play sports, what are they going to do? They’re going to throw rocks at your windows.”

Though construction is expected to take several years, Mr. Sciascia expects the amphitheater to be finished in time for next year’s Fourth of July celebration in the park.

Also Ready To Roll

The much-maligned and long-overdue revitalization of Town Center is also finally gaining traction, and the attention of outside investors. The mayor says the deal that will transfer ownership of several properties in the complex, including the long-vacant building that formerly housed Sports Junction and sits a stone’s throw from Town Hall, could be finalized before summer’s end.

Mayor Steve Sciascia on the steps of Town Hall.

According to plans on file with Town Hall, CapitalNexus LLC and Redtown Investment LLC have already secured the required zoning changes for the mixed-use redevelopment project, one that will introduce nearly 830,000 square feet of new space in the complex – a mix of retail and commercial buildings, with the centerpiece being a new arts and cultural center. The mayor says that condos will be built above some of the retail shops, while plans also call for the introduction of pedestrian-friendly streets and new green spaces.

“Probably one of the biggest things that’s hit Harrisburg is us doing this,” Mr. Sciascia said. “The building is getting leveled,” he continued, referring to the vacant structure off Main Street that last housed the sporting business. “That whole spot will be the new center of town.”

Ground could also be broken before the end of the year on Farmington – a massive mixed-use development that, when completed, will feature hundreds of new residential units, mostly a mix of townhouses and apartments, as well as a 120-room hotel, a movie theater, and approximately 350,000 square feet of retail and office space. That development will be built on 180 acres near the intersection of I-485 and Rocky River Road, spanning both Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties.

“They’ll all hit around the same time,” Mr. Sciascia says about the three initiatives, before turning his attention specifically to Town Center and Farmington. “So, between the two of them, we could have upwards of almost $300 million worth of projects rolling at the same time, which is huge for Harrisburg.”

Finding Good In Tragedy

When he’s not reviewing site plans, or focusing on his full-time duties with Wells Fargo – Mr. Sciascia has been working with computers in the banking industry for nearly three decades – the mayor always makes the time to warn the region’s youth about the dangers of alcohol and, more specifically, underage drinking through the state’s Talk It Out program.

Introduced by former Governor Pat McCrory and overseen by the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, Talk It Out is a multi-media initiative that often relies on those whose lives have been directly affected by underage drinking.

Mr. Sciascia lost his oldest son, Joseph, in a drunk driving accident on September 29, 2011. Joseph, who was only 19, was the passenger in a car driven by his best friend, and both had attended a party earlier that night where alcohol was served to minors. His friend survived but is now bedridden.

“I tried to figure out how to do something good out of something bad.”

The mayor says that one of his twins, Mike and Matt, now 25, later wrote a paper about their older sibling while attending high school that caught the attention of the former governor. An invite was extended and Mr. Sciascia, who also has an 18-year-old daughter, Sarah, agreed to serve as a program ambassador.

“I tried to figure out how to do something good out of something bad,” the mayor said. “My first gig was I spoke at a high school in Charlotte, in front of the entire school, and told my story.

“From there I became a speaker,” he continued. “I went to schools, I went to PTAs all across North Carolina, rotary clubs, speaking on this and it wasn’t long – I cannot remember how far into it – McCrory invited me to a meeting in Raleigh.”

But instead of meeting that day in 2015, the former governor presented the mayor with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his service.