Get to Know Dave Schankweiler.


Where do you come from?

My parents are from Shamokin, PA, where I spent summers, holidays and weekends visiting my grandparents and working in their neighborhood grocery store. I’m convinced that’s where I learned most of the lessons that helped me to one day start and grow my own business. I learned from their example that every person deserves to be treated with fairness and respect.

My early life began in Sunbury—a small town just about an hour’s drive from Harrisburg. Our parents would later move us to a row house in downtown Pottsville—a working class neighborhood not too different from so many communities in Harrisburg. Life happened on the streets and front porches and everyone was always looking out for each other. It was the definition of community.

Our family would move to the Harrisburg region when I was in 5th grade—one of the most important decisions they would ever make. We were active in our church and organizations like the Boys and Girls Club in Harrisburg. I might add that it was probably at Cedar Cliff High School where I learned some early lessons in leadership as an athlete and member of student government.

I think everyone deserves to experience the kind of neighborhood I had in those early years.

Did you attend college?

My family is full of smart, motivated people, but I was the first in my family to go beyond a high school education. I graduated from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre—a school that infused every student with the idea that your life isn’t meant to be lived out for yourself. They wanted us to leave with a vision for our life that was bigger than the size of a bank account. It’s the same way Donna and I have tried to raise our children.

You say you’re an entrepreneur, but what exactly does that mean?

That’s a great question. Let me try to answer this way. After graduation, I went to work in the marketing department for a large, Fortune 250 corporation in Harrisburg—AMP. I found out pretty quickly that corporate life just wasn’t for me. I thrive with creativity—the ability to think, test ideas and push the limits of my abilities. At age 24, I started my own business, beginning a 32-year adventure in serving customers and creating family-sustaining jobs.

Are you married? Do you have children?

I’m blessed to say that nothing I’ve ever done was accomplished alone. Just four years after going into business, I made the best decision of my life—marrying my best friend, Donna Sisko. She joined me at the Central Penn Business Journal in year four and we worked side by side for the next 28 years. There’s no one else who knows or understands me better. It’s been a special partnership.

Donna and I are fortunate to have three hard-working children, Kate, an oncology nurse, Parker, a civil designer and Drew, a medical device sales associate. Of all my life experiences, the most significant and rewarding is the title of Dad. Family comes first.

How do you know when a city is working or not?

That’s a good question. I think some leaders measure the health of a city by the size of a budget or how much debt a city carries. A city that works is so much more than this. I’d say that growing up in a small town gave me an awareness of what a vibrant community really looks and feels like. It’s less about what’s happening at the top than what’s happening at the bottom.

In healthy communities, there’s a creativity that bubbles up when neighbors help neighbors. There’s something special about connecting at church, the store, around the ball field and at the community concert. In Harrisburg, there’s some of that, but it’s a block-by-block experience.

It’s not what everyone is experiencing and this has to change.

What principles or core beliefs drive you?

For me, that feeling of community was one of my driving principles as we grew our business and stepped out to volunteer in Harrisburg. There’s nothing more rewarding than being a part of seeing lives change for the better. We also wanted our employees to feel that same sense of belonging to something that was family oriented, mission driven and had a purpose to serve.

As a business owner, I wanted every customer to know that we were all about serving their needs. That meant that everything we did was directed to helping them improve their bottom line. Because we did that, my associates at Journal Multimedia knew we were having an impact on tens of thousands of families. We made a difference in people lives. When we helped companies grow, we knew that we were putting money into the paychecks of those employees.

Our mission was to be an economic development tool by serving our neighbors and businesses in the Harrisburg region. There’s little I find more rewarding than seeing people with passion and good ideas be able to support their families.

What makes a good leader?

I believe in servant leadership—the idea that the people worth following are those who exhibit humility and an ability to listen. Before anything else, you want to know that a leader has heard you. I don’t see that happening much in politics and other public leadership roles.

At the core, we need to try to balance what is right for everyone. That means having a vision, crafting a plan around that vision and working hard to execute that plan.

People are patient until they don’t believe the leaders are listening or are worth following.

Have you ever held political office? Why are you running for mayor?

I’ve never held a political position. For decades, my focus was family, growing a healthy business and giving back to my community through volunteering. Now that I’ve sold my business, I have been eager to find ways to serve that could use a person with a slightly different take on some of Harrisburg’s oldest and biggest challenges.

Yes, we have big problems, but there’s also a city packed with talented, creative minds. We need a reason for everyone to be part of the solution.

I’ve heard friends suggest that running a business is much different than being a government leader. I agree. But the leadership lessons I’ve learned over the years will translate well into leading the capital city of Pennsylvania.

There’s real exhaustion with political answers. There’s a sense in government that talking is more important than doing. In business you can’t talk your way out of problems. You need to act. That’s what I hope to bring to city government—a heart for service and giving residents a commitment to deliver results.

What would you do differently?

The leadership of the city over the past 20 years has been lackluster—a kind of colorless management that doesn’t inspire or cast a vision. No vision. No plan. That’s meant few real successes for a city that desperately needs a win.

In his book The Nation City, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel argues that mayors are the only real politicians able to affect change for their citizens. He says that it’s the mayor who needs to get the little things right. From plowing the snow, cleaning the streets, patching the sidewalks and filling the potholes to the big things like neighborhood policing and attracting new businesses and residents, a good mayor is critical. Get these basics working properly with livable neighborhoods and then a mayor can focus on the bigger projects to help the city grow and truly prosper.

During the last 20 years we’ve continued to be plagued by the same problems. Let’s fix the obvious problems and then let’s move on and do more.

Why are you conducting a survey? Doesn’t Harrisburg have a vision already?

Let’s be clear, a city strategic plan isn’t a 250-page wish list. That’s what Harrisburg has spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars developing. A real vision should fit into ten pages. It’s a plan that outlines what city officials are committing to accomplish in the next year, five years and ten years.

The plan we need is part vision and part action. We need realistic goals, calendar deadlines and most importantly the name of the person responsible to lead the initiative. When you empower people with clear direction, that’s how ideas become reality. When ideas get lost in a thick binder and no one is responsible for success or failure, that’s when ideas die.

I’m conducting this survey because for far too long the residents of Harrisburg have not had their voices heard as to the challenges and opportunities of Harrisburg. We’re a city with many different neighborhoods, each with complex needs and issues. A mayor’s job is to be in each neighborhood, understand its community issues and work within the neighborhoods with its residents to solve the challenges.

Charles Marohn writes the following in his book Strong Towns:

“Building a strong town requires that we seek not to be understood, but to understand each other. Not to be served, but to live as servants to those around us. We must undertake the work of passing on a better place to subsequent generations. That is our burden.

Working together in an intentional way, it is possible to make our towns stronger financially while also improving the lives of people.”

I look forward to serving and improving the lives of all city residents. I want to leave Harrisburg a better place for all. I want a city that works for everyone—one that’s truly one of the best towns in America.

We can do this.