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United Way of Lancaster County


Urban expert is bullish on Lancaster at City Alliance’s 10th anniversary

Lancaster City Alliance President Marshall Snively, at podium, speaks at the organization’s 10th anniversary breakfast at the Lancaster County Convention Center on Friday, June 28, 2024. Behind him are LCA staff members; at right are incoming board Chair Vanessa Philbert and outgoing board Chair Rick Rankin. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Lancaster is a specatular success story, and one that is well positioned for the future, consultant Tripp Muldrow told his audience Friday morning.

“I sing your praises everywhere I go,” he said, calling the Red Rose City “a model nationally and gobally.”

Tripp Muldrow

Muldrow, a partner in Arnett Muldrow & Associates of Greenville, South Carolina, is a city planner and urban economic development expert. He was the keynote speaker at the Lancaster City Alliance’s 10th anniversary breakfast at the Lancaster County Convention Center.

Formed in June 2013 from the merger of the Lancaster Alliance and the James Street Improvement District, the Lancaster City Alliance aims to promote Lancaster’s economic vitality, safety and quality of life.

It promotes local small businesses with Indie Retail Week and Restaurant Week and convenes monthly downtown merchant meetings. It houses the Downtown Investment District and the district’s teams of neighborhood ambassadors and “Clean Teams,” and it provides support for facade improvements.

The Lancaster Sunday News wrote about the formation of the Lancaster City Alliance in a June 2013 Business section centerpiece story.

On the strategic side, it developed “Building on Strength,” the city’s 2015-2030 economic development plan and is tracking its implementation. It collaborated on the city comprehensive plan adopted last year; and it administers a number of economic development incentive programs, including the Keystone Innovation Zone and the City Revitalization & Improvement Zone.

Muldrow helped the Lancaster City Alliance develop Building on Strength and he has been involved in its current update or “recalibration,” which is expected to be completed and ready for release this fall.

In his presentation, Muldrow evaluated Lancaster against four other cities: Frederick, Maryland; Fredericksburg, Virginia; Greenville, South Carolina; and Portland, Maine. They have roughly similar populations and aren’t part of a larger metropolitan area.

Tripp Muldrow

On a range of economic development metrics — direct investment, housing growth, tourism, commercial lease rates and vacancy rates — Lancaster is either on par with its peers or ahead of the game, he said.

In general, midsize cities are “overperforming” since the pandemic compared with larger ones. Lancaster’s compactness, its walkability, its geographic location and its collaborative culture all position it to thrive in coming years, Muldrow said.

“I was awestruck at the density and vibrancy of Lancaster and the extraordinary collection of independent retail and dining,” he said. That’s attractive both to tourists and to people looking to relocate; indeed, some of today’s tourists may become tomorrow’s residents.

Yes, Lancaster is struggling with housing costs and homelessness — as are municipalities across the United States. The difference, Muldrow said, is that “you’re making a concentrated and deliberate effort to address the housing cost issues. These things are often glossed over in other communities.”

While anecdotally there are stories of people being forced out of Lancaster by the cost of housing, Muldrow said the available statistics do not support the notion that it’s an overwhelming problem.

Tripp Muldrow’s eight-point call to action for Lancaster. Click to enlarge.

Lancaster’s poverty rate decreased from 29% in 2015 to 19% in 2022. Is that due to displacement? No, Muldrew argued: “There’s no evidence that we’re seeing poverty being shifted out of the city.” It has decreased regionally, too, which suggests the trend is being driven by broad wage and income changes.

Looking ahead, Muldrow recommended marketing that focuses on Lancaster’s “iconic” brand and “placemaking” that enhances quality of life, such as the proposed redevelopment of the Conestoga Riverfront around recreation and environmentalism. The city could support more hotels, he said, though finding locations will present a challenge.

Local stakeholders should continue to track data, perhaps creating a shared “community indicators” dashboard. They should continue with initiatives that promote housing development and small business formation; and should take action to capitalize on emerging trends, such as coworking and the “creative economy.”

“I challenge you to be bold in everything you do,” he said.

The audience at the Lancaster County Convention Center listens to Lancaster City Alliance President Marshall Snively, at podium. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Building on Strength

Marshall Snively

Prior to Muldrow’s presentation, Lancaster City Alliance President Marshall Snively offered a by-the-numbers summary of the Alliance’s activities over the past decade and a tally of the progress made in accomplishing the goals laid out in “Building on Strength.”

The plan’s topline goal was to attract $1 billion in privately led investment to Lancaster by 2030. That number has been hit with six years to go, Snively said: There has been $1.05 billion committed in the city since 2015 and projects totaling another $370 million are in development.

“We are blowing that out of the water,” he said.

In 2015, Building on Strength projected a need for 2,500 new housing units: 997 have been built and another 1,750 are in development. It called for 100,000 square feet of new retail space and 300,000 square feet of new office space: Developers have built 190,000 square feet and 416,000 square feet, respectively.

Bucking the headwinds that face independent retailers and restauranteurs, the city has 200 more of them than it did in 2015. More than 50 have received support through the Small Business Loan Fund, an offshoot of the CRIZ. In all, the CRIZ has redirected $61 million in tax revenue toward reinvestment, leveraging $131 million in private funds.

The Lancaster City Alliance is tracking progress toward its 2030 “Building on Strength” goals. Click to enlarge. (Source: Lancaster City Alliance)

All told, 28 of Building on Strength’s 33 recommendations (84%) have been achieved or in progress; and 29 of the 67 sites it identified for development (43%) have been developed or are in process.

Credit is due to the Lancaster City Alliance staff, Snively said, and to the Lancaster community at large. He effusively thanked the 300-strong audience, who represented a broad cross-section of businesses, governmental entities and nonprofits.

“Without your support, your investment, your volunteering, your undying love of Lancaster, we would not be where we are today,” he said.