The mayor of one of Pennsylvania's most debt-laden cities spent millions of dollars on a museum about cowboys, Indians and the Wild West.
He did so even though the city is on the other side of the country from the prairies, mining towns and honky tonks of the old West and without telling city council members, who learned about it from a newspaper reporter.
After all, Pennsylvania is known more for its Civil and Revolutionary War history - say, Gettysburg or Valley Forge - than Wild Bill Hickok or the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
As a result, bidding starts Saturday on hundreds of items at a Dallas hotel - a step that Harrisburg council members forced to try to address a shortfall in the city budget.
The stakes are high for Harrisburg, a city of 47,000 that is best known as Pennsylvania's capital, 95 miles (153 kilometers) west of Philadelphia.
With the city deep in debt, council members will be watching closely to see how much can be reclaimed from the roughly $6.5 million (4.4 million EUR) that Mayor Stephen R. Reed said he spent on guns and other old West collectibles.
"If we get less, then it's just a big mistake and it's unfortunate for the people of Harrisburg," said Councilman Dan Miller.
When Reed became Harrisburg's mayor in 1982, his dream was to transform the decaying, shrinking city into a cultural destination, a "city of light" on the Susquehanna River.
Under Reed's leadership, hotels and restaurants have sprouted in downtown and the number of businesses on the city's tax rolls has more than quadrupled.
In 2001, Reed opened the National Civil War Museum on an abandoned reservoir overlooking the Capitol - even though none of the war's major battles played out in the city. His dream of building the National Museum of the Old West next to it stalled.
"I still think it's a good idea," he told reporters at an unrelated public event Tuesday. But, "we need the money right now."
Reed did not return repeated messages The Associated Press left with an aide, but has defended his spending as perfectly legal. The auction is being touted as the largest Western-related collection ever auctioned.
To buy the items, Reed tapped an account at the Harrisburg Authority, where his expenditures were approved by officials he had appointed. The authority, which now includes council appointees, oversees parts of the city's infrastructure and raises money by collecting fees on bond issues it brokers for government agencies.
At least one Harrisburg Authority official contends that some of the money Reed spent should have been off limits for the museums, and questions whether the mayor, in a shopping frenzy, unwittingly paid bloated prices for items that could be fakes.
Reed shelled out close to $30 million (20.5 million EUR) on old West, Civil War and other collectibles over 15 years - he even bought an Egyptian mummy - while the city was sliding deeper into debt, said the official, Eric Papenfuse, a council appointee who is the authority's treasurer.
City employees are only beginning to catalog what Reed actually bought. Many items, including a 12-gun schooner that was part of Gen. Benedict Arnold's fleet during the Revolutionary War, are still stuffed into warehouses and storage rooms at city facilities, Papenfuse said.
"The spending is staggering," he said. "It's unbelievable."
About 800 of the thousands of old West items from Harrisburg are scheduled to be auctioned by Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries over two days beginning Saturday. Another two-day auction is scheduled in April and some items will be sold on eBay.
For sale are covered wagons, marshal's badges, boots, chaps, saddles, "Wanted" posters, letters, photographs, maps, furniture, pottery, decor, artwork, pistols, rifles, knives and more. One item expected to fetch tens of thousands of dollars is a bright red Wells Fargo & Co. stage coach, still in working condition.
Claims about the size of the auction raised eyebrows among dealers. One said he believes the items should bring in more than Reed paid, claiming that a weak dollar is drawing many buyers, including Europeans, into collectibles.
"The Western market today has gone extremely wild," said Don Cappa, a collector and appraiser from Deer Lodge, Montana.
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