OP-ED: Building trust, saving neighborhoods and fueling an economy in York

Montez D. Parker II
York City
Montez D. Parker II

For decades, York County has had a core of poverty surrounded by relative affluence. And that core of poverty, due to racist redlining, is disproportionately made up of people of color. 

The heart of York County, York City, has rampant, inter-generational poverty. It also has nowhere to grow. It is fully developed and landlocked at 5.2 square miles, with nearly 40% of the value of its property tax exempt. So, the cycles of poverty and trauma repeat themselves over and over. 

We know that it will take courageous countywide public and public-private solutions to make the fundamental changes necessary for our city and its children to thrive. We also realize that a strong city means a strong county. 

Many organizations and individuals have done a lot of work to move York forward and create a more equitable community. I sincerely thank and commend them for that.

Since returning home to York after serving my country as an Air Force police officer, I have collaborated with the York County Community Foundation and York City Mayor Michael Helfrich's City Eco System Coordinator Erika Sweeny to work on an inclusive development initiative in the Penn Street neighborhood.

I worked with the York City Redevelopment Authority and Miss Bobbi’s place (a local nonprofit) to rehabilitate blighted houses and provide homeless families with school-aged children the opportunity to keep their kids educated without the burden of transition. I’m also working with the York County YMCA to revamp York’s Youth Commission, which focuses on sustainable programming that allows “kids to just be kids” in the middle of so much turmoil and trauma in our neighborhoods. 

Although I have seen desire and effort on the part of many folks to improve things, I am greatly troubled by the lack of progress on key solutions. 

It has been a year since a thousand citizens from all over the county peacefully protested in the square of York to advocate for systemic changes to fight racism, injustice and poverty. And I have yet to see robust implementation of known solutions. 

Top business, political and community leaders came together under the banner of York Counts and spent years developing an excellent action plan called “The Time is Now” to address systemic racism, educational inequality and poverty. That action plan was endorsed and sponsored by the York County Community Foundation, York College, WellSpan, The United Way, Better York and the York County Economic Alliance.  

Sadly, we haven’t implemented the solutions in that comprehensive action plan yet, despite our community having many billions of dollars of investable net assets. So, I have to ask myself, have we truly answered the call? What are we waiting for? 

I sincerely hope our county business, political and community leaders will come together and implement the solutions listed in their “Time is Now” action plan.

Our children in York City are our gold. We need to invest in them and make fundamental changes to eliminate the systemic racism that limits their future. Because those kids are our future. We know that there is a nearly straight-line correlation between academic performance and poverty. Therefore, we can’t address educational inequalities without addressing that limiting factor of poverty.  

The good news is that America is on the brink of her greatest reconstruction effort since the Civil War. I firmly believe that York County can serve as a regional powerhouse. To become a thriving community with broadly shared prosperity, we must tackle the key problems of unequal education, systemic racism and poverty. These do even more harm than just limiting the future of the kids of York City. They hold back our entire county from embracing diversity as a strength and competing in the world economy.

We can neglect these issues no longer. We must ensure children, regardless of color and economic status, live in a safe, equitable and thriving York County. In 10 years I see York County as a regional powerhouse that educates, attracts and retains the world’s best and brightest. Yes, this will take hard work, but it is righteous work that must be done. 

Here are some proven steps we can take:

  • Universal pre-K: We know we can’t address the problems of our beloved city and county seat without investing in the education and development of kids unlucky enough to grow up in poverty. We realize that comprehensive national and local statistics show that there is a nearly straight-line correlation between poverty and academic performance. So, we clearly need to address poverty if we’re going to fix our unequal education system.  A proven method is universal pre-K in our city and throughout our county. Leaders like the Community Progress Council and elementary educators have known this for years. Let's finally insist upon universal Pre-K and make it happen. 
  • The York County Commissioners can deliver on the 17-year-old promise of York Counts to found a county human relations commission to fight discrimination in all its forms. The prime focus of that commission would be education and outreach.  
  • The commissioners can also deliver on another 17-year-old commitment by York Counts to found a county health department to help make a better life for all citizens.  
  • For over 20 years, York City has had a well-intentioned, but ineffective, “minority and women-owned business enterprise” ordinance on its books — essentially an unfunded and unenforceable mandate. It’s time to overhaul this legislation and give it wings. Part and parcel of that effort should be our county business, political and community leaders coming together to create a $15 million fund specifically designed to combat economic inequalities, unequal education and systemic racism in York County. With ample federal COVID-relief funding, billions of investable net assets in our community and millions in proceeds from the sale of the city waste water treatment plant, the stars are aligned. The time is now. A $5 million dollar grant fund for city minority- and women-owned businesses and a separate $5 million zero-interest loan fund for city minority- and women-owned businesses should be key components of that overall $15 million fund. 
  • New neighborhood resource centers. Sadly, due to lack of funding, the Salem Square Resource Center — part Martin Library satellite and part police substation — is now shuttered. After all our nation and neighborhoods have been through in the last few years, after all the gun violence, after all the talk of helping our most vulnerable, the closing of this West Princess Center is unacceptable. Not only should it reopen, but each city census tract with concentrated poverty deserves such a stabilizing gathering place for learning open at nights. 
  • Redline reparations for York’s poorest neighborhoods. Some census tracts in our city neighborhoods have languished for decades as a result of redlining and outdate state and federal policies. Redlining was the federal government's 20th century practice of not granting homeownership loans to neighborhoods of color. This intentional disinvestment has had a crippling multi-generational impact of low homeownership, environmental racism and hopelessness. 

Cities like York need a creative, focused approach like this to repair the breach and right the wrongs done to historically black neighborhoods.” Here’s the link by the moderate, national “Strong Towns” movement making the case. 

— Montez D. Parker II is a native of York city and a graduate of William Penn Senior High School.