Senior Staff Writer, Editor-in-Chief
Richard Gray, mayor of Lancaster, spoke at this week’s Common Hour lecture, entitled “Lancaster: Its Past, Present, and Future.” He discussed past, current, and future projects, problems, and developments in the city.
He was introduced as a somewhat eclectic but admirable figure. First elected in 2005 as mayor and then reelected in 2009, Gray walks to work, and lives in downtown Lancaster in the same home he’s lived in for 40 years. He and his wife used to live in Pittsburgh, but within three months of visiting Lancaster they uprooted and relocated.
Gray began by talking about Lancaster as a desirable city. In recent years, Lancaster has seen a lot of changes such as First Fridays and other improvements in relation to the arts. Gray envisions Lancaster as an anchor for arts on the East Coast, an artistic mecca for surrounding “mega-opoli” like New York City, Philadelphia, and DC to depend on, akin to Santa Fe in the Southwest.
Gray continued by talking about how he was a representative of the new urbanism movement. According to www.NewUrbanism.org, this movement “promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities composed of the same components as conventional development…which contain housing, workplaces, shops, entertainment, schools, parks, and civic facilities essential to the daily lives of the residents, all within easy walking distance of each other.” Gray himself follows this movement by walking to work every day and meeting his wife for brunch.
Continuing with the idea of a safe, walkable community, he then spoke about architectural sites in Lancaster and how the city is still recovering from the effects of urban renewal in the 50s and 60s. He decided that amidst the necessity to demolish and make room for new initiatives, he would need to sign off on every single case to ensure nothing important be torn down.
He gave an example of an old shipyard, which both Walmart and Target wanted to build upon, but he refused both plans.
“You might be better off with a field of rubble,” Gray said. “We’re not going to repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Gray proved his methods are the right way to go by referencing a well-being poll in which Lancaster was ranked number one nationally. He brought up another survey by CNN listing the 10 best markets in the world. Only two on the list are from the United States, and one of them is Central Market in downtown Lancaster. He used these as evidence that the people who live in Lancaster feel good about the city.
After all this positivity about the city, it was time for Gray to point out some problems. He made it clear that he feels big problems lie in the state government and how it is set up. In Lancaster County alone there are 60 local governments and 16 school districts. With so many different organizations, and therefore a large workforce, communication and coordination don’t really happen.
The next problem Gray spoke about was poverty.
“The average family income [in Lancaster city] is $32,000 a year,” Gray said. “Poor people don’t care about seat belts wrapped around an empty belly.”
The issues discussed by politicians today focus mostly on middle class problems, and families earning only $32,000 a year are not middle class. His main point about poverty was his lack of ability to do anything about it. The higher governments are attempting to fix the problem, but it just is not working and should instead be solved a local level, in his opinion.
Another example of the money situation, was about medical insurance given to firemen, policemen, and various other state employees. It costs $21,000 a year per person just for this insurance when years ago it was only $4,000. These people need to be paid, but that presents an issue. Part of the problem Lancaster faces is how to tax the population of families making such a small salary. The insurance for policemen and other state employees is supposed to come out of taxes, but the percentage of tax able to come from these families is so small that often it’s difficult to figure out how to solve this puzzle.
“Where does [the money] come from?” asked Gray. “That’s a constant struggle.”
Lancaster has a 25-year plan the city hopes will address some of these problems. The biggest part of the plan is making Lancaster more sustainable. Every year gallons of water are wasted because they are combined with sewer water and rendered useless. The plan is to keep this water (mostly stormwater) out of the sewers so it does not have to be discarded later. The plan also includes improving roads and parking lots as well as planting hundred of trees a year to cut down on water that hits the ground. Gray noted some of these concepts have already been put into action, such as permeable blacktops with underground water reserves.
Gray then returned to Lancaster and the arts, where artists in the city are now able to support themselves. He wants to continue improving the lives of artists by making it more of a retail situation.
Gray ended by talking about the future. He spoke about how television shows are a good sign of where people are moving to. When shows like Leave It to Beaver were on everyone wanted to move to the suburbs. Then when shows like Friends and Seinfeld came, it was all about the cities. Gray described how studies show people continue to buy multiple family homes, like condos or apartment buildings, after moving as opposed to single family homes.
“The future is with the cities,” he said. “The lifestyle of the future, both politically and economically, is urban.”
As usual, Common Hours ended with questions from the audience. The mayor answered all questions and even continued conversations with a luncheon in Weis College House following his speech.