Along with being chosen the best metro area in which to retire by U.S. News & World Report, Lancaster can now add “best small city in America” to its impressive resume.
That distinction is from WalletHub, which compared more than 1,300 U.S. cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 based on 43 indicators of livability. Those indicators range from housing costs to school-system quality to restaurants per capita.
The cities were evaluated based on five key dimensions: affordability, economic health, education and health, quality of life, and safety. Unlike in the U.S News ranking, only the “city proper” was considered, not the metro area as defined by the census.
Lancaster did best in safety and quality of life (which includes indicators like the aforementioned restaurants per capita). Rounding out the top five were Carmel, Indiana; Fair Lawn, New Jersey; Lexington, Massachusetts; and Brentwood, Tennessee.
“That’s fantastic,” said Carole Kirchner, a Lancaster city resident and agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Homesale Realty. “I’ve pretty much lived in the city all my life. I’m amazed at where it was (in the 1980s) and where it’s going.”
In an email, Anne Williams, director of communications for the Lancaster City Alliance, wrote: “These rankings are fun to celebrate, and we are always proud to see Lancaster occupy the top spot. So many different organizations and the people of this community come together to ensure that Lancaster is a special place. While it feels good to be No. 1, not everyone is able to benefit from this success, so as a community, let’s not rest until everyone can share in this achievement.”
Kirchner said she is seeing a lot of younger professionals moving into Lancaster, as well as retirees and empty nesters.
The city attracts people who can work remotely, she said, and like being able to walk downtown to restaurants and entertainment venues. That includes relocators from New York and New Jersey, which is “really, really cool.”
Lancaster residents are taking pride in their neighborhoods, Kirchner said, which are being revitalized through community-led organizations like SoWe in southwest Lancaster.
The city’s many murals are also a sign of strong civic identity. She said “there’s good stuff happening” for singles, seniors, families with children – the whole gamut.
“I love the diversity of cultures and people,” Kirchner said. “It’s such a vibrant city. I can totally get” why Lancaster was ranked No. 1.
Since 2019, Lancaster City Alliance’s Façade Improvement Grant Program has provided $600,000 in grant funding to homeowners, small business owners and residential landowners to improve the façades of Lancaster’s building stock.
This month, Lancaster City Alliance funded its 100th project through the program with the funding of up-lighting fixtures for the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church at the intersection of Strawberry, Manor and West King streets in Lancaster.
The up-lighting fixtures are expected to highlight the church, which acts as a doorway to Lancaster’s downtown and SouthWest (SoWe) neighborhood.
The program has become an important tool in increasing neighborhood pride and creating an attractive environment in key locations outside of Lancaster’s downtown, said Jeremy Young, director of community and economic development at Lancaster City Alliance.
Recipients of the grant receive up to a $5,000 match on repairs to the front of their building, such as masonry repairs, new railings, painting and more. Since its founding, the program has focused on commercial hubs in Southern Lancaster such as West King, Manor, South Prince and South Queen streets as well as Columbia Avenue.
“Each property that is transformed provides the foundation to further enhance our community and provide more opportunity for everyone to share in the city’s success,” said Young. “It fits with our mission of wanting to see a Lancaster that flourishes for everyone.”
The program began as an effort to duplicate the revitalization that had already begun in the northern half of Lancaster city to areas that hadn’t yet seen that kind of investment.
Lancaster City Alliance looked at private dollars to make that a reality and found a partner in the High Foundation which gave an initial $75,000 toward the fund. Additional funders for the program today include BB&T now Truist, the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation and Tenfold.
Those investments have now totaled $600,000 in grant funding. Counting the match paid by recipients of the grant, investments in the city’s façades through the program are over $1.25 million.
“This really is a private-public partnership, and it wouldn’t be possible without the funders. Lancaster has a tremendous reputation for its collaborative nature. It’s responsible for the success we’ve seen.” said Marshall Snively, president of Lancaster City Alliance.
Along with the impact the program has on the aesthetics of Lancaster’s building stock, it also has had a positive impact on contractors in the area, 70 of which have worked on the 100 façade projects.
So far recipients of the program have hired 21 contractors based in the city, 12 person-of-color owned contracting businesses and five women-owned contracting businesses.
“Something we are proud about regarding our program is that we have had the ability to work with a large number of contractors, many of whom are city-based businesses,” said Young. “We have had the ability to be really inclusive in working with BIPOC-owned contracting businesses and LGBTQA+ contracting businesses.”
One goal of the program that the alliance would like to see get more traction was a workforce development segment of the program, said Snively.
“At the beginning of this program we were hopeful that this would be more of a workforce development program,” he said. “We developed the program with the goal of not only using local contractors but using it as an opportunity to employ residents and trainees to assist and potentially work for larger contractors.”
Snively said that training neighborhood residents to help with the project was a challenge during the pandemic, adding that while the alliance did place dome folks, that end of the program was very challenging.
“While this program was still a major success, we do think there is still opportunity down the road for this to not only enhance neighborhoods but be a workforce development program as well,” he said.
Making the program accessible
A key piece of the program, according to Young, is that it is not just open to residential landowners and small business owners but can also be accessed by homeowners so they can build equity in their properties.
To ensure that the program’s grant match isn’t a barrier, recipients of the grant can pay a 10% match if they meet certain requirements. Recipients can also leverage other programs, like Lancaster’s led abatement program, to act as the match for the façade program.
Demand for the project has been high across the city with many property owners now on a waiting list. Snively said that the nonprofit has yet to approach other areas because they don’t want people to be excited for a program that doesn’t exist yet, but they are aware of the high demand.
Looking toward the coming year, the focus for the program will be to secure funding first and foremost, said Young.
“We have the model right in terms of how the program works and we have found efficiencies and ways to streamline it. For us it’s a matter of funding it again and ensuring that it can continue,” he said. “Looking at other corridors and neighborhoods we haven’t grown into would be a goal from our perspective and continuing how to be creative about leveraging those funds.”
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