New Downtown Inc CEO looks to build on York's resurgence
Silas Chamberlin knows a lot of people like himself who grew up in the York area and moved away, but have returned to live and work in what he calls “a strong and vibrant city.”
But he also knows a lot of Yorkers who moved to the suburbs a generation ago and rarely venture back into town, concerned that it’s not safe.
Both groups are on Chamberlin’s mind as he begins his leadership of York City improvement and economic-revitalization group Downtown Inc.
His main goals are to measure the economic impact of having a strong downtown York, and to be a point person promoting York’s economic, residential and cultural resurgence.
The 33-year-old Chamberlin began last month as CEO of Downtown Inc, which coordinates York’s monthly First Friday celebrations and provides assistance to the city’s downtown businesses, among other things.
The nonprofit’s board chairwoman, Krista Darr, described Chamberlin as a great addition.
“He’s both willing to listen and learn, but also share what he feels is important about Downtown Inc and its mission,” she said.
Chamberlin has been actively meeting with business and community leaders, she added. “As he builds his understanding of our organization and community, he is also bringing his perspective and demonstrated best practices he has observed in other communities.”
Caroline Morris owner of Kimman’s Co. gift shop on Beaver Street, is excited about having Chamberlin aboard to help guide the city’s continued revitalization, and has some goals she hopes he will address.
One is “taking the fundraising, development side of Downtown Inc to the next stage, with corporate donors,” Morris said. “If they want to move forward in being the driving force for downtown, that takes money, that takes direction.”
Morris also hopes Chamberlin can work closely with York County leaders to break down boundaries between “city” and “county” issues, while also helping to boost the number of new companies in downtown York, “the 30-40-50-job companies” that provide sustaining jobs and the people who go out to lunch during the day or have a drink after work, she said.
A Conewago Township, York County, native and a 2002 Northeastern High School graduate, Chamberlin graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia, then got a master’s degree in history from Lehigh University and a doctorate in environmental history, also from Lehigh. He and his wife, Amanda, have two children, including a one-month-old son.
Before returning to York, Chamberlin most recently was executive director of the Schuylkill River National Heritage Area in Pottstown.
As he leads Downtown Inc’s efforts, “you’re not going to hear me say very often, ‘We need to be like Lancaster, we need to be like Carlisle,’ because I think York has its own thing going on, and I think we’re pretty great at what we do,” Chamberlin said.
“And if I’m out in Harrisburg or out in York County, I just want to be the person … driving home the good things that are happening, and trying to encourage people to come down here and take a look at it, and, ideally, open up a business or come and go to dinner here.”
Chamberlin also wants to find a way to measure the economic benefits a strong downtown York has on its county and the region.
“People always tell me why in their heart they came back (to York), but if you can put the actual dollar signs to it, with some statistics and real figures on how many visitors we have and how much they’re spending, that’s what gets the attention of the state agencies, the county commissioners,” he said.
He said there are cost-effective, informal surveys Downtown Inc could do with volunteers or students to measure downtown York’s number of visitors and the like, but his main goal would be to hire a consultant who does similar surveys of the private sector: “That way, the results are taken seriously by legislators and business owners, and can be useful for years to come.”
Downtown Inc, which has a yearly operations budget of $620,000 and seven staff members, was created in 2006 as the result of a merger between the groups Main Street York and the York Business Improvement District Authority.
Asked what his biggest challenge will be, Chamberlin smiled and gave an instant one-word answer.
“Perception,” referring to the perception that downtown York is not safe.
“That’s something that’s tough to change, because it’s cultural, generational. The key is just providing (people) with a downtown experience that’s positive, one time, so that they can start to lean on that instead of reading about a shooting,” he said. “And once you start building up three or four positive experiences, then they have something to compare to what they’re reading in the paper, and you start to overcome some of those perceptions.”
What’s happening in York is important, he added, whether you live there, Dover, Dillsburg or Seven Valleys.
“This is the cultural heart of the county and it’s the county seat, but it’s also important for employers,” Chamberlin said, pointing out his office window toward York’s Continental Square.
“For employers hiring their executives and their managers, a big selling point for getting those high-quality leaders to come to York County has to do with the fact that we have a great downtown, with great cultural attractions and restaurants where they can go if they’re used to being in an urban setting somewhere,” he said.
Todd Vander Woude, executive director of the Harrisburg Downtown Improvement District, agreed that communication with the community and emphasizing the positives of your city are key goals for someone in Chamberlin’s position.
“Like I always say, ‘my door’s always open here in Harrisburg.’ But along with that, you want to keep sending that positive message,” the Harrisburg official added. “We feel there are a lot of positive things happening in our downtown, but a lot of those times those stories don’t get told, and we need to tell them.”
In York, Chamberlin said he would love to have an event a year or so from now with state Rep. Kevin Schreiber, who on Dec. 1 takes over the countywide York County Economic Alliance — providing statistics on the positives a strong city can have on its whole region.
“We could say, ‘Downtown York generates this many jobs for the entire county, with (hypothetically) $100 million of economic impact, and this much in taxes for the state and this much in local taxes,’” Chamberlin said. “That way, it just becomes a part of what they think about downtown.”