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United Way of Lancaster County


Deputy U.S. Commerce Secretary meets with local leaders

Mayor Danene Sorace and Community First Fund CEO Dan Betancourt flank U.S. Deputy Commerce Secretary Don Graves, center, as he speaks to the media at Community First Fund on Monday, March 25, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves says he’s “blown away” by the dynamism he sees in Lancaster.

Graves was in the city Monday to promote the Biden administration’s economic policies and to take part in a roundtable with business, nonprofit and government leaders. The event took place at the offices of Community First Fund, a Lancaster-based nonprofit lender.

Much of the conversation focused on Lancaster’s Latino community and specifically on the large portion that is Puerto Rican. Lancaster County and city are 11.6% and 39.4% Latino, respectively, according to the U.S. Census. Graves is the Biden administration’s economic growth coordinator for Puerto Rico and has been deeply involved in the ongoing efforts to rebuild since 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

Lancaster is a city of welcome, Mayor Danene Sorace said, “and that welcome drives a lot of economic opportunity.”

Graves and local stakeholders broached a wide range of issues, Community First CEO Dan Betancourt said, touching on U.S. Small Business Administration lending, support for nonprofit lenders like Community First (it is a “community development finance institution,” or CDFI) and the need for immigration reform.

Don Graves

Everyone has hopes and dreams, but not everyone has access to the credit and capital they need to realize them, Graves said.

“It’s not always easy in some parts of this community, if you don’t own your home, if you don’t have a lot of family wealth, to be able to start your own business,” he said.

That, he said, prompts the question: How can the federal government and local stakeholders best partner to promote equitable access to capital, enhance workforce development and do what else is needed to deliver “for all of the people in Lancaster.”

Vanessa Philbert, CEO of Community Action Partnership, said she addressed the issue of credentialing: The difficulty people have in getting academic and professional qualifications earned in one jurisdiction recognized in another.

“We are overlooking valuable talent and hindering our hiring pipeline,” she said.

Locals filled in Graves on Tec Centro, the bilingual workforce training center that is now launching sister organizations in other southcentral Pennsylvania cities. Graves called Lancaster’s efforts on workforce development “the right model that we can take to communities all across the country.”

The challenge is to make sure that areas like Lancaster aren’t overlooked, he said, and that they get their fair share of investment, which is often directed disproportionately to world-famous hubs like Silicon Valley.

Before the meeting, Graves toured the credit union that Community First opened in 2022, chatting with several customers about access to financial services and what it meant to them.

As for Puerto Rico, the Biden administration says it is working to expand the island’s economic diversity, strengthen governance and promote workforce development and energy resilience.

Jaime Arroyo, a City Council member and CEO of the economic development nonprofit Assets, said he recommended initiatives such as microlending and “patient capital” equity investments to support entrepreneurs who can’t immediately guarantee a market rate of return. That will promote equitable opportunity and encourage innovation, he said.

Betancourt highlighted the administration’s multi-million-dollar investment to recapitalize Puerto Rico’s credit unions. That was a vital and welcome investment, he said.

Graves is the second high-ranking federal official to visit Lancaster in the past two weeks. On March 20, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona toured Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology and George Washington Elementary School. Cardona, like Graves, is Latino.

Graves has been visiting a number of U.S. communities with large Latino populations. He was scheduled to follow up his visit to Lancaster with a similar event Wednesday in Philadelphia.