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Lancaster, a city of approximately 60,000 in South Central Pennsylvania, experienced many of the challenges common to smaller legacy cities in recent decades: suburbanization of jobs, depopulation of the central city, and concentrated poverty. Yet leaders in Lancaster have taken important steps to help the city confront these challenges through collaboration, strategic planning, and a focus on equity.

Ongoing, regular collaboration between key stakeholders from government, the business community, nonprofits, and neighborhood organizations is a defining feature of Lancaster’s civic sector. Strategic planning efforts have helped shape and encourage this regular collaboration, and have helped the city to identify and address some of its most pressing challenges. Critically, local leaders are recognizing that the city’s success must benefit all of its residents, and new efforts are underway to address poverty and neighborhood disinvestment. Lancaster’s recent successes illustrate many of the strategies for smaller legacy city revitalization in action.

Building on Strength

Efforts to revitalize the city began in earnest in the late 1990s, when a group of private sector leaders came together to create the Lancaster Alliance –  a nonprofit membership organization focused on creating and carrying out a new economic development plan for the city. This business-driven group guided the creation of the Lancaster Economic Development Action Agenda, a 15-year plan that guided economic development in downtown and contiguous neighborhoods. This plan focused on leveraging Lancaster’s assets, including its historic downtown and location within Pennsylvania’s Amish country, to position the city as a tourist destination and regional entertainment hub. The City of Lancaster adopted the plan as the guiding document for its economic development work, and various organizations took on implementation roles. Several large projects identified in the plan were built, including a convention center, new downtown hotel, and a minor league baseball stadium. These major projects, as well as efforts to grow the city’s arts community and encourage new residential and retail options, have reshaped Lancaster’s downtown into a thriving regional hub.

In 2013, the Lancaster Alliance merged with the James Street Improvement District, a neighborhood improvement district that was founded through a partnership of Franklin & Marshall College and Lancaster General Hospital. James Street Improvement District was created to focus on quality of life and economic development in the neighborhood that encompassed both campuses, and later assumed the management of the city’s Downtown Investment District. The newly merged organizations created the Lancaster City Alliance, which took on the roles of both of its predecessors, bringing long-term, citywide strategic planning and valuable services for downtown businesses under one roof. Lancaster City Alliance led planning and community engagement for a new 15-year economic development plan in 2014, which resulted in Building On Strength: City of Lancaster Economic Development Strategic Plan.

This plan aims to sustain and build from the successes of the initial downtown economic development efforts, with a particular focus on increasing quality of life and empowering neighborhoods. LCA now leads the implementation process, coordinating 10 core partners and 30 organizations involved in different aspects of the plan. Stakeholders meet quarterly to report out on progress and set goals for the following quarter, which has helped forge new partnerships as organizations work together on implementation. The Building On Strength implementation process was also designed to be highly accountable to the community, with public quarterly progress updates that report the status of all activities in the plan.

Beyond guiding the Building On Strength implementation process, LCA plays other key roles in developing long-term capacity in the community. The organization convenes groups of key public and private-sector stakeholders called Executive Leadership Teams that work on major issues facing Lancaster, including community safety, economic development, neighborhood development, and marketing. These groups provide an opportunity for rising civic leaders, particularly mid-level managers in the private sector, to engage directly on issues that are relevant to the community at-large. By creating opportunities for rising leaders to engage, LCA is helping to build the community’s long-term civic capacity.

In recent years, state policy also aided downtown revitalization efforts, particularly through Pennsylvania’s City Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ) program. Created in 2013 after advocacy by the city’s administration, a CRIZ is a designated zone where state and local taxes collected within that area can be used to pay debt service on financing for capital projects within the zone. In Lancaster, the CRIZ encompasses approximately 130 acres in downtown and other selected neighborhoods and funds are focused on developing vacant and underutilized property. In its second year of operation, the CRIZ returned $3.4 million in state taxes to projects within the zone.

Not Just “Amish Country and Outlets”

In addition to the long-term work of building Lancaster’s civic muscle, local leaders have also worked to build on and showcase the city’s unique sense of place. While the development work that occurred through the initial 15-year plan capitalized on the city’s location within Amish country for tourism, efforts since then have focused more on quality of life for residents and businesses. The City of Lancaster has a strong public arts program that was created with the intention of creating a more vibrant community for residents, businesses, and tourists. The Office of Public Art recently released a 10-year strategic plan that outlines how the office will build on the Lancaster’s unique quality of place to promote equity and livability. The Office of Public Works also works to strategically incorporate quality of life improvements like art or green improvements into public infrastructure projects.

Additionally, leaders have been working on building the city’s brand as both a tourist destination and a regional cultural hub. Key stakeholders have been meeting to discuss how best to promote the city and the broader region. The New York Post gave these efforts a boost in 2016 by naming Lancaster “the new Brooklyn” for its arts scene, food, and boutiques.

A More Equitable Lancaster

Lancaster’s considerable success in revitalizing its downtown and drawing new residents has not been without its own challenges. Even as the population grew, investment continued, and young professionals moved into the city, the share of Lancaster’s residents living in poverty grew. Concerns about gentrification and displacement became more pressing as the city’s rebound did not appear to benefit all residents equally.

In 2015, Mayor J. Richard Gray created the Mayor’s Commission to Combat Poverty to tackle these issues. The poverty commission was tasked with examining the root causes of poverty in Lancaster, recommending cross-sectoral policies and practices that can help combat it, and producing an action plan that would serve as a roadmap for the initiative. The Commission was made up of nearly 50 organizations, but also sought to include the perspectives of people living in poverty in the work. After a strategic planning process, the Commission produced “One Good Job: A Strategic Plan to Cut Poverty in Half in Lancaster City by 2032”.

One clear outcome of the Commission’s work was the realization that Lancaster County needed a community development corporation (CDC) focused on poverty issues. The Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County, a key stakeholder in the strategic planning process, helped to facilitate the creation of a new organization that could coordinate anti-poverty efforts. Executive directors of other nonprofits working on community development and people living in poverty made up the board of the new CDC, called Lancaster Equity. The organization does not have full time staff and is not intended to undertake programmatic work – instead it serves as a coordinating body for anti-poverty efforts throughout the city and county. In this capacity, Lancaster Equity does not compete with its peer organizations for limited dollars, but provides them with a framework to work together and a vehicle through which community organizations can take collective risks.

Small business development and entrepreneurship have been an important part of Lancaster’s revitalization story, and efforts are also underway to ensure that those opportunities are open to all residents, particularly people of color and low-income residents. ASSETS, a nonprofit organization, aims to make business a force for good in Lancaster by providing marginalized residents with resources to start businesses and by educating businesses about how they can contribute to creating a stronger community.

Other community development efforts have focused on particular neighborhoods that have not benefited from the same scale of private investment as downtown. Lancaster’s south side has a particularly high concentration of poverty, and the efforts of Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership (LHOP) have recently focused there at the suggestion of the city’s economic development and neighborhood revitalization director. LHOP, which traditionally provided low-cost financing for low-income homebuyers or affordable housing developers, expanded its services to include community development and housing rehabilitation in 2012. A partnership with Wells Fargo Bank to rehabilitate foreclosed homes blossomed into a significant reinvestment initiative in the city’s southwest quadrant. LHOP received a $100,000 planning grant from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation to create a comprehensive, resident-focused plan for the neighborhood.

After a 13-month-planning process that involved significant resident input through a newly formed resident council, the neighborhood formed SoWe, a group focused on implementing their new plans. The Wells Fargo Regional Foundation awarded an implementation grant of $1.15 million to the SoWe effort, which will be administered through LHOP. The money will go to specific, implementable projects, including housing rehabilitation, community safety initiatives, new streetlights, and small business development. Partners from the city’s economic and community development sector will help make the plan a reality as well. Lancaster City Alliance expanded its bike ambassador program, which previously operated only downtown and northern Lancaster City, into the Southwest neighborhood. Lancaster Equity CDC will do some of the housing development projects that are outside of LHOP’s capacity.

Civic Spirit

A focus on collaboration and strategic planning has positioned Lancaster to tackle big problems like poverty and gentrification. While many of these efforts are too early in their implementation to evaluate for success, the collaborative, open process undertaken in them has helped strengthen the city’s civic muscle. Even if individual projects do not succeed, Lancaster has embraced a culture of calculated risk-taking and collaboration that will allow it to respond to future challenges.

Strategies Used:

Build civic capacity and talent

  • Lancaster City Alliance Executive Leadership teams and board development
  • Lancaster Equity Community Development Corporation board structure

Encourage a shared vision

  • Building on Strength plan and implementation process
  • Mayor’s Commission to Combat Poverty

Expand opportunities for LMI workers

  • Mayor’s Commission to Combat Poverty: One Good Job Report

Build on an authentic sense of place

  • Downtown development leveraging historic core and connection to Amish country
  • Department of Public Works efforts to incorporate placemaking into city infrastructure spending

Focus regional efforts on building a strong downtown

  • Lancaster Economic Development Agenda

Engage in community and strategic planning

  • Long-term economic development planning: Lancaster Economic Development Agenda & Building on Strength
  • Mayor’s Commission to Combat Poverty
  • Southwest Neighborhood planning grant

Stabilize distressed neighborhoods

  • Southwest neighborhood revitalization

Strategically leverage state policies

  • The City Revitalization & Improvement Zone (CRIZ)