Minorities' concerns scuttle York City plan to outsource economic development

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
SEIU Local 668 Union Member Christopher Bangs, of Pittsburg, looks on as York NAACP President Sandra Thompson speaks during a rally, in support of more than 500 recently furloughed state employees, outside of Senator Scott Wagner's office in York City, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Allegations of gentrification and a disconnect between York City officials and minority groups have put a stop to a contract that would have shifted economic development responsibilities to a countywide organization.

The City Council was supposed to vote on a contract proposed by the York County Economic Alliance during its Tuesday, June 5, meeting, but the item was removed from the agenda at the last minute. 

The contract would be between the city and the YCEA. Under the deal, the alliance's 24 employees would aid in economic development within the city, according to YCEA President Kevin Schreiber.

President and CEO Kevin Schreiber speaks as the York County Economic Alliance hosts its Spring Legislative Luncheon at Wyndham Garden York in West Manchester Township, Thursday, May 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The city's acting director of economic and community development, Shilvosky Buffaloe, would shift his role to more community-based development but would still work for the city.

The deputy director position, held by Nicole Davis, would be eliminated and she would be transferred to another city department.

However, 26 employees would be brought in to help: The city would have two full-time employees to "support economic development coordination, activities, project management and customer service," and 24 other supportive staff members, according to the contract. 

The city would pay the alliance $12,500 per month for their services until the end of the year, solidified in a contract that could be ended by either party at any time. A budget transfer of $72,464 for economic development services would accompany the vote to approve the contract.

To minorities in the city, however, the contract was less about bringing in help for development but rather gentrification of the city, which is the center of the minority population in the county.

Gentrification refers to upper- or middle-class people moving into an area and reshaping its culture, causing higher property values, which could displace some of the current, lower-income residents. 

More:Gentrification, revitalization, discussed in York

The contract was removed from the agenda at the request of York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and was no longer under consideration, he confirmed.

However, a handful of citizens in the nearly full council chambers had time to voice their opinions during the public comment period.

Some who spoke accused city officials of outsourcing economic development to a largely Caucasian staff without solid connections to the city's minority population.

"Talking about economic development without actively and intentionally addressing institutionalized racism and economic disparity is like trying to heal a broken leg with a Band-Aid," said former York City poet laureate Christine Lincoln.

Christine Lincoln, York City's poet laureate, poses near her home. After moving from Manchester Township, she discovered the not-so-rosy side of the White Rose city and has become an advocate for tenants' rights. Hear Lincoln's thoughts on the city's housing crisis at www.yorkdispatch.com.

Lincoln questioned Schreiber's intentions.

"Schreiber's vision is investor-based," she said. "It does not hold at its core those who are people of color or those who are disenfranchised, because investor confidence doesn't consider these groups. This is a case of gentrification versus real revitalization."

York NAACP President Sandra Thompson offered to speak on behalf of other members of the community upset with the contract.

"People are concerned that you're turning over the duties you were elected to do to another entity that isn't accountable for the people who elected you," she said. "This is minimizing black and brown voices and taking away their power. York City is the only real voice of black and brown people in the county as a whole."

The people of York City will be paying close attention to how the issue develops, Thompson added.

"We'll continue to listen, read and watch to make sure the people's voices are being heard and their authority is not being wrongfully circumvented," she said. 

Moving forward with such a contract without having the minority community on board is dangerous, added Karl Singleton, president of the Pennsylvania Diversity Coalition, a group fighting for rights for disadvantaged minorities.

'"I would caution you to not only remember (who you work for), but where you are in regards to making decisions that are going to go far beyond our generation."

Singleton emphasized that the coalition also will be following the development closely.

"We will be following this, and we are not at all fooled by the illusion of inclusion," he said. "We won't limit it to race, although it does play a part. This is all of our fight. We must look out for the masses, not the chosen few."

Still, he said he doesn't believe the alleged gentrification is intentional.

"I don't believe anyone has ill intentions, but they may be ill-guided," he added.

Schreiber declined to comment on the criticisms of the contract.

More:BREAKING: Renovated Yorktowne Hotel to be a Hilton

More:Schreiber transitions to YCEA head

Helfrich, the main proponent of the contract, disputed the allegations and reiterated his intentions to formalize an already-existing relationship and solidify access to the alliance's resources to benefit economic development. 

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and Interim Police Chief Troy Bankert hold a press conference on recent shootings, Wednesday, April 25, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

The city already works with the alliance on economic development projects, and the contract would set the relationship set in stone, he said.

"During the transition period, people told me the current system with the current staff wasn't meeting the needs of the community," he said. "I've got to make a change. I had an opportunity where, instead of two people trying to be everything to everybody, we could bring in 24 others with expertise to help."

The city still plans to have a relationship with the alliance — not through a contract, however — and eliminate the deputy director position, transfer Davis to a new department and hire two new employees to serve with Buffaloe, Helfrich said.

Helfrich said there was a miscommunication about the contract and that some of those present at the meeting weren't well-informed. He also acknowledged that the experience was an example of how the community needs to be on the same page as the government in order to move forward.

A Community Advisory Committee is being planned to do just that, he said. Talks are underway to create the committee, which came about because of upcoming development projects in the city. 

The committee would allow the community to discuss upcoming plans and communicate with local officials in order to streamline projects and promote better communication between residents and the local government, Helfrich said.

Council President Henry Nixon agreed that the council needed to put the contract to rest amid the confusion.

York City Councilman Henry Nixon gives the first responders memorial tribute during the 2016 Court of Valor & Safekeepers Shrine Ceremony with York's Observance of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 at Prospect Hill Cemetery in North York, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"The response was very passionate, and it was very clear that these folks had deep misgivings about what was happening," Nixon said. "I was deeply troubled by what was said."

He also recounted recent events that could have possibly upset the minority community and led to such vocal opposition in the chambers.

"Just look at the recent Grandview Golf Course issue," he said. "It's very clear to me that racism exists, certainly in the city, and to a greater degree in the county. I think people reach a breaking point when they have lived in poverty and it's so concentrated in the city."

The referenced incident took place Saturday, April 21, when Steve Chronister, former county commissioner and an adviser to ownership at the club, called police and asserted that five African-American woman were playing too slowly and delaying other golfers.

One of the women was Thompson, who, along with the four other women, alleged discrimination. The state Human Relations Commission announced Thursday, May 24, that it would hold a hearing on the matter; that hearing is yet to be scheduled.

More:Chief: Police were called to Grandview Golf Course twice

The City Council is now in summer recess but will hold committee meetings at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 17, and Tuesday, Aug. 21.