In 15 years, Lancaster turned potential to power.
How that happened, city leaders say, is a story of community, the organic strength of its private sector and the public structure that allowed it to flourish.
"There has been no one redefining project," says Tom Baldrige. "Rather, it's been a series of projects that helped generate and sustain a momentum, and that's a positive."
Baldrige has a long view on the subject. Since 2000, he has been president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry, which has more than 2,300 members and this summer, for the second time in a decade, was named national chamber of the year by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives.
Before that, he spent more than six years as president of what was then the Lancaster Alliance and also served as co-chairman of The Lancaster Campaign. Both organizations were focused on the revitalization of the city.
Rick Gray, an attorney who has been mayor of Lancaster since 2006, agrees that Lancaster's transformation is broader than a formula or even individuals.
"You couldn't take the model — though, of course, there is no model," Gray says. "You couldn't take what we've done in Lancaster and transport it to York or Harrisburg or Reading."
However, Baldrige says, an economic development plan done by LDR International has been remarkably accurate. The city's renaissance has played out almost exactly as the consultant suggested, "which was five to seven years of relatively slow progress, and then a much more significant trajectory over the past eight to 10 years — and, worth noting, even over the depths of the recession."
The plan didn't extend beyond the 15 years that have now elapsed, Baldrige says, so now the city is in the process of making a new plan "that doesn't start from ground zero like it did 15 years ago, but instead starts from a position of strengths."
Asked how the city has changed, Gray and Baldrige reel off numbers. A hundred new restaurants, they say. 140 new retail shops. 120 new market-rate housing units. Oh, and the arts and entertainment. And, of course, Clipper Magazine Stadium, which opened in 2005, and the Lancaster County Convention Center, which opened in 2009.
Beverly R. "Peggy" Steinman, chairwoman of the Steinman Communications companies and of the locally philanthropic James Hale Steinman Foundation, also pegs the recent Lancaster Central Market renovations as a pivotal occurrence. Projects like that, she says, draw not just visitors but also people who want to live in vibrant, walkable downtown communities — which Lancaster now is.
"Downtown has really come alive," Steinman says.
It all hangs together, Baldrige says, not by master plan but by fortune and cooperation. The stadium, for example, was not initially going to be downtown, but it ended up there and started drawing interest.
"People who hadn't been downtown for seven, 10, 15 years came down to the stadium and began to see and feel what it could be like," he says. "It invited them down on a more regular basis to check out the restaurants, to explore the retail."
That, in turn, dovetailed with the gathering First Friday art gallery buzz, Baldrige says.
"First Friday was around in the '90s, and it was the artists," Gray says. "They would have gallery shows on first Friday, sort of mimicking Philadelphia, which was very successful. It was a business thing. That grew and grew and grew for 15, 20 years, then an entrepreneur opened three or four galleries on North Prince Street and that tipped it, and all of a sudden it became huge."
The entrepreneur in question was Dennis Cox, who bought Godfrey Advertising in the 1970s and sold it in 1999. Cox says he and his wife invested in the area known as Gallery Row around 2010, with a goal of creating a destination by coordinating the development and marketing of complementary businesses in a geographic area.
"It's worked in the arts district, it's worked in several other parts of town that obviously I had nothing to do with — College Row, which the (Downtown Lancaster) Special Improvement District developed, even the 300 block of North Queen and then the market district downtown," Cox says. Tools the Coxes used in that process involved requiring tenants to share their customer lists and inviting other businesses to be open the same times for special events.
"If you're an individual destination retailer and you view adjacent retailers as competitors, you won't succeed," Cox says. "In Lancaster, I think we're at the point where everybody gets that. It's not a negative to have three galleries in a row or four restaurants."
At first, Cox says, it was hard to find a restaurant that was open past 8 p.m. on a Friday. But as First Friday gained momentum and became a time when restaurants regularly sold out, that changed and more restaurants began popping up, strengthening a dining pull that complemented the arts one.
The momentum didn't start with him, Cox says. For instance, in terms of private investment, developer Rob Ecklin "probably more than any private guy, put his money where his mouth was as far as saving Lancaster, before the rest of us even though about it."
Gray also gives Ecklin kudos and traces the arts surge back further.
"The art community in Lancaster is, to a very large degree, because Armstrong brought their arts and design people to the downtown in the mid '70s," he says. Then he and Baldrige launch into a litany of people without whom Lancaster would not be what it is today. It is long.
That kind of business synergy, Gray and Baldrige say, has been a key factor in Lancaster's journey, as has the involvement of myriad groups and partnerships. And then there's government. Gray says his view is that it should level the playing field, mow the grass and then get out of the way.
"People say, 'Oh, the downtown is so beautiful.' Well, an awful lot of money went into streetscaping, plantings, lightings," Gray says. In that and the linked — and crucial — issue of public safety, he says, government has been involved, but the bedrock of any lasting progress has to be private enterprise.
"I'm a great believer that sustainability means somebody can make a profit," he says. "Those things that can't make a profit but are vital, then the government should get involved in them. If somebody can make a profit doing it, the government's got enough problems elsewhere — police, fire, public works."
That said, city leaders are hoping that a substantial form of government involvement — a City Reinvestment and Improvement Zone — will soon become reality for Lancaster. The plan 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 it.
"What's unique about Lancaster and our opportunity with the CRIZ is that the properties that are easily developed by the private sector have been or are actively under consideration for development," says Baldrige. "What the CRIZ will do is enable us to take those properties that, for a whole variety of reasons, are by many accounts undevelopable, at least from an economic standpoint, and make the numbers work. In some aspects it's icing on the cake on a story that's already part of our redevelopment."
Government also figures prominently in Gray and Baldrige's visions of the city's future and which challenges will loom largest.
"What we believe from a chamber perspective is that a lot of these cost drivers for local government (are) because of the mandates that Harrisburg is placing on them, and to enable them to better manage locally is going to be critical for their long-term success," says Baldrige.
Specifically, Gray says, property taxes and pension funding are two critical issues where they are jointly pushing for reform.
As for the rest of Lancaster's future, Gray and Baldrige say it will remain a work in progress, and that's the way it should be. Revitalizing a city has been described as pushing a boulder up a mountain, Gray says: "When you get to the top, the boulder starts rolling and you start chasing it. I'm not sure we're chasing it yet, but a lot of things are happening."
"You hope you never achieve it, because you want to keep pushing," Baldrige says. "You want to keep pushing out and recognizing the assets you have and keep pushing it to the next level."
Title: President and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry since 2000
Family: Married to Susan; three children; two grandchildren
Education: Bachelor's degree in speech education, Ithaca College, 1981; graduate courses at Elmira College
Who is your business hero, and why? "I am inspired every day by all sorts of businessmen and women, but if I had to pick a few it would be John Shirk Esq. (deceased) for judgment; Bill Adams, retired CEO of Armstrong World Industries, for vision and strategy; Walt Legenstein, CEO of Certified Carpet, for passion and community building; and former Gov. Dick Thornburgh for integrity."
What is the most important thing you do at work every day? Help to maintain momentum and motivation among our great chamber staff, volunteers and members.
Title: Mayor of the City of Lancaster since 2006
Family: Married to Gail; three children; six grandchildren
Education: Bachelor's degree in American government, American University, 1966; juris doctorate, Dickinson School of Law, 1969
Who is your business hero, and why? "Warren Buffett. I like his story and his approach to business."
What is the most important thing you do at work every day? "The mayor's job is to provide direction but not necessarily play the game. A good football coach analyzes the problem, develops a plan, educates the players and allows them to execute. Leadership means a broad vision conveyed to those who know their fields; having them buy into that vision; and allowing them to execute it in their respective fields. Micromanagement means you don't trust your staff."
In Rick Gray's words on the Steinman family: "I knew they always were giving stuff, but I didn't realize until I was mayor that almost everything major that happened, they had a piece of it, if not all of it."
Title: Chairwoman of the James Hale Steinman Foundation and of the Steinman Communications companies
Family: Niece Hale Ansberry Krasne, a director of the companies, and her husband, Robert M. Krasne, who is vice chairman of Steinman Communications and publisher of Lancaster Newspapers Inc.; and niece Caroline Nunan Hill, a director of the companies
Education: Shippen School for Girls, Foxcroft School, Mount Vernon Junior College
Who is your business hero, and why? "My father, because he was so innovating and he was always thinking ahead of the box. He was always trying something new."
What is the most important thing you do at work every day? "Try to bring things together, people together, navigate ideas."
In Rick Gray's words: "A guy that has a vision and just won't give up. I think if there's one person who has affected how Lancaster is, more than anybody else, in the 40 years I've been here, it's him."
Title: President and CEO of the Spanish American Civic Association
Family: Wife, Rosa; five children
Education: Bachelor's degree in history from St. Joseph's College, 1971
Who is your business hero, and why? "Phil Wenger, CEO of Isaac's Famous Grilled Sandwiches, and Daniel Betancourt, president of Community First Fund. Both of these business leaders demonstrate high standards of performance balanced with fairness and a duty to social justice."
What is the most important thing you do at work every day? "Keep our people focused and committed to the mission."
Title: Former owner of Godfrey Advertising Inc.; current downtown property owner who is active in the community
Family: Wife, son, daughter and six grandchildren
Education: Penn State University, bachelor’s degrees in journalism and political science
Who is your business hero, and why? “I really don’t have a hero to pick.”
What is the most important thing you do at work every day? “I do the hard parts first.”