York City economic development: Fixing a 'broken system'

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
A new 240,000 square-foot robotics building is being planned for the Northwest Triangle in York City. Monday, June 25, 2018. Photo Illustration: John A. Pavoncello

A controversial plan to bolster York City's economic development might be dead, but Mayor Michael Helfrich says something eventually will have to be done to fix the current system, which he called "broken." 

During the mayoral transition period earlier this year, Helfrich said he received multiple complaints of missed calls and emails by those trying to contact the York City Department of Economic and Community Development.

This is "an example of a systemic issue" in regards to staffing and how the department is managed, he said. 

Recently, a plan intended to fix the problem through a contract with the York County Economic Alliance was announced — and promptly attacked by members of the city's minority community.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich speaks during the 2018 Downtown First Awards at Logos Academy in York City, Thursday, April 12, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

After the emotional meeting, Council President Henry Nixon said the plan is "dead in the water."

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The contract would have allowed the city to use the alliance's staff and resources to expand and manage economic development in the city.

Minorities in the city said the plan amounted to outsourcing economic development and could lead to gentrification and the minimization of minority voices in the city.

Helfrich has since slightly shifted gears, but he is still planning to take action, with or without a contract.

A rendering by AB Sketches shows how the Yorktowne Hotel will look when renovations are complete in late 2018 or early 2019.

Expansion and inclusion: The vision now, the mayor said, is to continue trying to expand economic development while "not forgetting all of the rest of the people of York City."

The mayor intends to bring in two additional employees for the Department of Economic and Community Development, he said. The plan is still in its early stages, and the future employees' roles haven't been decided.

The employees are needed because the current staffing is "not nearly enough," he said. The city's financial standing only allows for two new employees, but Helfrich said 10 more are needed.

The small expansion would allow Shilvosky Buffaloe, who currently oversees all York City economic and community development, to focus on community development, as communities have been "left behind" in an age of large-scale projects in the downtown area, Helfrich said.

Shilvosky Buffaloe, who oversees the York City Redevelopment Authority in his role as interim director of the city's department of community and economic development, speaks during a news conference at Penn Market announcing planned improvements to the market Friday, July 7, 2017. The RDA took ownership of the building several weeks ago. Bill Kalina photo

"I want Buffaloe to be spending all of his time on community development," he said. "... (T)here's already plenty of economic development. It's almost all downtown and for people not in the city."

Helfrich said one of the new employees would need to be fluent in Spanish in order to better communicate with the city's Latino population, which comprises 31 percent of the city population as of 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Buffaloe declined to comment, but he said the mayor has "astute people in his midst" to work on Helfrich's vision.

Others involved in local economic development echo Helfrich's call for expansion and inclusion.

"Expansion while reflecting minority voices is the goal," said Silas Chamberlin, CEO of Downtown Inc. "Bettering communication with city residents isn't so much a problem as it is an opportunity."

Downtown Inc. CEO Silas Chamberlin speaks during the 2018  Downtown First Awards at Logos Academy in York City, Thursday, April 12, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Chamberlin's organization works to enhance and encourage investment in York’s central business district. They are often working hand-in-hand with Helfrich on economic development.

He said he "applauds the mayor for putting these ideas on the table" but also agreed with some minority complaints that "some people are left behind."

"A lot of the issue is information sharing," Chamberlin said. "In the end, anything to increase dialogue is good."

Helfrich said he plans to do just that. He teased the news that a development team is coming in and will help develop a community advisory committee.

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.

"They've guaranteed me that they're going to include the community, including hiring people from the community," he said. 

The soon-to-be-introduced development team also is handling the most recent large-scale project taking place in the Northwest Triangle development, which has been in the works for more than a decade.

This Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects rendering shows the building York Exponential founder John McElligott hopes will be the epicenter of a robotics revolution in downtown York City.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced a $6 million grant to York City to cover the first two phases of the technology-based innovation June 4.

Despite the popularity of larger projects such as the Northwest Triangle, the $30 million Yorktowne Hotel renovation and Market Street revitalization, Helfrich emphasized "you have to think of everyone else."

Community development: Behind the scenes, an array of community-oriented initiatives are also underway, some still waiting for financing, Helfrich said.

Most recently, five low-income areas in the city were recognized as Qualified Opportunity Zones.

The designations provide a tool for promoting long-term investment in low-income communities. Through the program, investors receive tax benefits for investing in low-income communities.

More:Tax incentives approved for investors interested in low-income areas in York City

The incentives include deferral, reduction and potential elimination of certain federal capital gains taxes.

The city also has ongoing grant applications for $700,000 to aid community development in the west end, which hasn't yet been awarded, Helfrich said. 

Additionally, in the near future, the city will be submitting grant applications for $3 million to install new gates, street lights and sidewalks on the south side. 

Helfrich said a lack of publicizing the community-related measures can lead to a perception that neighborhoods are being forgotten.

"These things are going in, but I can only announce what's being awarded," he said. "People often don't know what's going on behind the scenes."

Another initiative in the works behind the scenes is the "neighborhood ecosystem development." 

The four-step process is hoped to make community centers more readily available, especially in low-income areas, Helfrich said. The steps are:

  • Find spaces for children and residents to have recreational activities.
  • Find event coordinators.
  • Find volunteers and service providers.
  • Find other financial and resource providers.

The process is in its early stages, he said. However, the city has an agreement with the York City School District to utilize their school buildings at night to offer recreational activities and other events.

Talks with future event coordinators also are underway. 

As a result of these recent initiatives, Helfrich said it's clear that work is being done, but residents can't expect change overnight.

"I've been in a little over five months, so I'm not sure what miracles people want me to perform in that time," he said. "But I can confidently say that we're laying the ground work."

The contract: Currently, the city employs two individuals to handle economic and community development: Buffaloe and Nicole Davis, a part-time deputy director.

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

The city would have  had two full-time employees to "support economic development coordination, activities, project management and customer service," and 24 other support staff members, according to the contract. 

Buffaloe would have shifted his role to more community-focused work. Davis would have been transferred to a different role in city government.

Even with that deal now dead, Helfrich emphasized the necessity of formalizing the  existing relationship between the city and the YCEA to ensure economic development issues are properly handled.

More:Minorities' concerns scuttle York City plan to outsource economic development

Minority concerns: To minorities in the city, 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. 

York NAACP President Sandra Thompson offered to speak on behalf of other members of the community upset with the contract during last month's meeting.

Local attorney and York NAACP Chapter President Sandra Thompson speaks as hundreds gather for the March For Our Lives rally to end gun violence in York City, Saturday, March 24, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"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."

More:EDITORIAL: Minority voices make themselves heard

Others who spoke during public comment said the process would simply outsource economic development matters to a largely Caucasian staff. As a result, the staff wouldn't be able to accurately reflect the desires of the minority community.

None of them, however, made suggestions containing alternatives.

Schreiber didn't respond to multiple phone calls and emails requesting comment for this report.

Expansion not so bad? Not all of those in the minority community disapproved of the idea of expanding economic development.

"The current system clearly isn't enough," said Carla Christopher, former equity coordinator at York County School of Technology. "If we don't consolidate resources, we're going to stay stuck. You can't separate city and county people; they all contribute."

However, she empathized with people of color concerned that their voices would not be heard during economic development.

Christopher made her own suggestion to allow for expansion and inclusion. 

"We need to run the city as a nonprofit," she said. "We could have a board consisting of business owners and diverse residents that reflect the city population. Then we could have an administrator to carry out what's talked about, but he or she would largely answer to the diverse board."

In the end, communication is integral, but a seat at the table of power players is also necessary, Christopher said.

"Communication is vital, but what's more important is that minorities have power," she said.