There's a line in Lancaster, and Gene Aleci would like to erase it.
"East of Prince Street, the heart of downtown Lancaster has been experiencing a tremendous reinvestment over the past 35 years. We estimate there has been more than a billion dollars invested there, of all sorts, from curbs and sidewalks to new lighting to restoration projects to major institutions moving in," says Aleci, president of Community Heritage Partners LLC.
"But," he continues, "if you stand at Prince Street and look west, the difference is very noticeable. I would estimate in that area from Prince to Mulberry, in that same time period, there may have been about $25 million in investment."
There are reasons for the divide, Aleci says. A downtown investment district was implemented in the 1990s, and the West King area wasn't part of it. Traffic on Prince Street can't turn onto West King going west, because it's one way. And the area never had high-profile establishments such as courthouses, law firms and opera houses.
"What was here were tailor shops, butcher shops, some light industrial, hat shops, milliners, mechanics' shops," Aleci says. Many of the businesses had small production facilities in the back and retail in the front.
Today, he says, its reputation is that of a drive-through block: "It kind of looks like nothing much positive is happening there and nobody's making any money there."
"You have three-story buildings of which only the first floor has been used for the last 30 years," says Daniel Betancourt. He is president and CEO of Community First Fund, which joined Aleci in applying for a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission grant for a project they call "West King Street: Past and Future."
They were awarded $25,000, contingent on their raising $40,000 in private funds, and are assembling a planning, preservation and urban development team to produce an inventory and "road map" for improvements, development opportunities and strategies.
So far, Aleci says, about $30,000 has come in, and he's confident they can raise the remainder.
Lancaster City Alliance President and CEO Bob Shoemaker said that organization is also a supporter of the plan.
"While we have the neighborhood opportunity, we're lacking a few critical amenities to get it done," he said of revitalizing the area. "It only makes sense."
One key aspect of any improvement will be getting the community behind it, Aleci said. East of Prince Street, he said, "There have been more or less continuous organizations, public and private, that have formed around it and worked in a coordinated way to the capacity of the public and private sectors to make improvements."
There are a number of responsible property owners west of Prince Street, Aleci said. He and his wife are among them, having purchased three properties in the 200 block of West King Street about five and a half years ago.
But, he says, "I don't see at this point that there is any real level of coordination among them. That's one of the things we're kind of working on — trying to build some relationships among the people who are significant property owners in the belief that if they had a more coordinated approach to their shared interests, the city and other institutions would pay more attention and look more seriously at investing in the area."
Although Aleci would like to see some of the same tools that helped the rest of the downtown flourish put to use in the West King area, he says that doesn't mean West King needs to replicate downtown.
"I think there's nothing wrong with different economies in different areas of the city," he says. "It's good. Cities function that way. To suggest that you have to take a part of the city and alter it dramatically to make it successful is probably not that realistic."
West King already has an economy, he says: "I'm not suggesting that we empty out the people and businesses that are here and bring some kind of alternatives, but that we find ways that what's already present move up a few notches economically so there's a little more capital invested to improve operations."
One positive step in that direction, Aleci says, would be including West King in the City Revitalization and Improvement Zones program that the city has been angling to land. It would leverage anticipated taxes from development into millions in capital for that development, and the city has been working closely with state Sen. Lloyd K. Smucker on developing and authorizing the program.
Discussions persuaded the city to include the West King area in its preliminary CRIZ plans, Aleci says, but it remains to be seen whether the CRIZ is enacted and exactly what the final lines of the zone will be.