Report: York City can thrive again with right plans, leaders

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

Once a bustling manufacturing hub, York City has the foundations to succeed again with the right mix of leadership, partnership and creativity, according to a recently released report.

As job markets move away from traditional manufacturing toward health care and education, among other fields, the nation’s smaller cities must implement a variety of initiatives to ensure they aren’t left behind by changing industries and demographics, according to the report.

Foot traffic is shown near construction at 25-27 West Market Street in York City, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York City was one of five midsize Pennsylvania cities and 24 U.S. cities examined by Torey Hollingsworth and Alison Goebel of the Greater Ohio Policy Center in their report “Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities.”

Much of the national conversation about revitalization and redevelopment focuses on the struggles of major metropolises such as Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Detroit, but smaller cities are reeling from similar deindustrialization and suburbanization trends, often without much of the infrastructure needed to rebuild, Hollingsworth said Wednesday, Sept. 13.

These smaller cities were once known as economic powerhouses, but now many, including York City, are dotted with vacant factories, houses and storefronts.

“The challenges faced by smaller legacy cities loom large in the American imagination,” Hollingsworth and Goebel wrote in the report. “It’s no coincidence that Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen chose Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Youngstown, Ohio, respectively, as symbols of the demise of a certain kind of American dream.”

Time to reinvent: Much like Lancaster, Allentown, Bethlehem and Scranton, York City has an opportunity to reinvent itself while trying to rebuild after the Great Recession, according to the report. 

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York City’s history is rooted in its manufacturing past, but over the past decade, officials have worked to reimagine the city’s downtown neighborhood as a retail and business center with a wide appeal to people with various interests and incomes, Hollingsworth and Goebel wrote.

Cities serve as the "public face" of most counties, so regional leaders should focus on driving investment and redevelopment downtown, the report recommends.

"People outside York County don't differentiate between city boundaries and general boundaries," York County Community Foundation President and CEO Jane Conover said in support of these regional efforts.

A strong downtown brand attracts people to the community while broadening the city's tax base by bringing in new businesses and jobs, further revitalizing the area, Conover said.

Residents of York City see and feel the impacts of downtown revitalization every day, but the 40,000 people who commute into the city daily also benefit from a strong, safe and fun downtown, Conover said, calling downtown revitalization one of YCCF's top priorities. 

'A city for the county': Revitalization is not a "zero-sum game," as a successful downtown business district will "radiate out" through the rest of the city and beyond, said Kevin Schreiber, president and CEO of the York County Economic Alliance. 

"We're building a city for our county," he said. "It's in our best interest as a county that we have a strong, vibrant and healthy city."

Businesses are uprooting from the suburbs to relocate in downtowns because many employees want an urban lifestyle and the amenities that come with it, Schreiber said.

Redevelopment leaders can capitalize on this growing preference for downtown life by converting outdated commercial and industrial spaces, according to the report.

RSDC, formerly Royal Square Development and Construction, has been at the helm of many of these revitalization projects in downtown York City, converting vacant buildings into restaurants, entertainment venues and housing.

A #PopUpYork sign on a window at 1 North George Street in York City, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Schreiber credited RSDC, led by Josh Hankey and Dylan Bauer, for its ambition, energy and willingness "to test the limits of creativity" to revamp vacant and underutilized properties in York City.

Officials spent many years trying to reposition the city for success, he said, and revitalization efforts in York City have now hit a "critical mass," allowing officials to let the private market take over.

"Investment is driving investment," Schreiber said.

York City Mayor Kim Bracey did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment for this article.