A century ago, downtown Lancaster was the economic and cultural center of Lancaster County. In 1910, the Red Rose City’s population of 47,000 represented 28% of the residents of the entire county, and all trolley lines led to Penn Square.
Then Henry Ford’s Model T made cars affordable for everyone, and by 1938, Lancaster County’s trolleys had stopped running. The suburbs were growing, and Lancaster was beginning to feel the pain of changing demographics.
As early as 1944, an investigation found that many of the city’s housing units were substandard, but that finding didn’t stop the population from peaking in 1950 at more than 63,000. By 1960, however, the number had dropped to 61,000, and two major events in the 1960s did great damage to the economy and to the spirit of downtown Lancaster.
The first was the 1963 opening of the Route 30 bypass, which reduced traffic congestion, but took cars and commerce out of the city. The second was Urban Renewal, a federal program that was supposed to revitalize cities. Instead, Urban Renewal meant only wrecking balls and the demolition of the entire 100 block of North Queen Street, a once vibrant block that had been home to movie theaters, restaurants, the YMCA, a hotel, a tavern or two, and a variety of retail stores.
The leveling of the block left an urban landscape that resembled London after the Luftwaffe, and the entire block lay vacant for years. Eventually, office buildings, a hotel, movie theaters, and a department store went up, but they didn’t do so well. The department store closed. The theaters closed, and the hotel has been open at some times and closed at others. Right now, it’s open, but for sale.
That’s the sad history. The good news is that downtown Lancaster has developed a new identity, and the city is now experiencing an urban renewal that doesn’t involve wrecking balls.
Lancaster has become a major arts destination with galleries and studios, an art college, performing arts venues, and a beautiful old theatre. Young people and experienced professionals alike are moving into the city. Three new hotels and a convention center have opened, and so has a ballpark where thousands of people gather on summer nights to enjoy peanuts, beer, and home runs.
Since 2007, downtown Lancaster has had a net growth of 110 new retail businesses. In 2011, the city had $95.3 million in expansion, an increase of 63 percent over 2010.
One example of that connection between city and county came in a Gallup poll released in March. That study, called the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being
Index found that 94.7 of Lancaster County’s residents say that they’re satisfied with the area where they live, and that number leads the entire nation.
Institutions Help Advancement
No one can define the exact moment of birth for Lancaster’s arts district, but one important year is certainly 1987. That was the year when the Pennsylvania School of the Arts moved from Marietta in western Lancaster County to 204 North Prince Street in downtown Lancaster and changed its name to the Pennsylvania School of Art & Design. In 1999, PSAD received certification as an official college. In 2003, it changed its name to the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design
, and today it has about 275 students enrolled.
Elizabeth Todd Lambert is President and CEO of LancasterARTS
, an organization whose mission is to promote the art scene in Lancaster to local residents and to potential visitors. She moved to Lancaster in 2006, and the depth of the arts community surprised her.
"I was delighted to find the arts. I didn’t know how much is here. It’s a wonderful surprise, and it’s still growing," she says. "We have new artists moving in, and the Pennsylvania School of Art & Design is always a supply of young artists. It’s unusual to have a 4-year arts college outside of a major metropolitan area."
And while much new life has come into Lancaster, two venerable institutions are still vital parts of the city’s fabric. Central Market
is the oldest continuously operating farmers’ market in the country (the site was an outdoor market as early as 1730). The current building dates to 1889, and it recently underwent a complete renovation. On Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, Market is alive with food shoppers looking for the best and the freshest. Going to Market is also a social event. Friends see friends and stop to talk, and customers develop relationships with merchants that they can’t possibly have at the suburban supermarket.
A block from Market is the Fulton Opera House
, which opened in 1852 with a concert by famed Norwegian violinist Ole Bull. Today, the Fulton packs the house for Broadway stage shows and for performances by the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra. The theatre also qualifies as the oldest member of Lancaster’s arts district, which is now bringing a large and measurable economic benefit to the city.
In 2009, the Local Economy Center and Center for Opinion Research of the Floyd Institute for Public Policy
at Franklin & Marshall College conducted a study that found that the arts district has a $73 million economic footprint and that more than 1,000 jobs have direct connections to art and culture organizations.
Building Blocks of Vitality
Another vital part of the city’s vitality is the 300 block of North Queen Street, which is Lancaster’s eclectic shopping area. The atmosphere actually extends to the 200 and 400 blocks of North Queen, and businesses of many descriptions enjoy a symbiotic relationship. They range from Lebzelter’s Total Car Care
, the world’s oldest Goodyear tire dealer, to Ziggy’s Magic Shop
and Segro’s Hairport
Mary Beth Shenk bought Flowers By Paulette
, which lies at the northern end of the 200 block 5-1/2 years ago, and her business is booming. "The 300 block is fabulous. We advertise together, and the camaraderie is wonderful. We have a lot of restaurants that give the block an international feel. And one benefit that our store has is that we’re right next to a state store."
At the northern end of the 300 block are the Northgate Condominiums
, which are new luxury units created in an old warehouse building. Marilyn Berger is the real estate agent for Northgate and for adjacent homes on East Lemon Street that she has remodeled and upgraded. "This is a passion for me. It’s a wonderful part of the city. This is a gated community in the heart of the city, so it’s a brand new product. And the vitality since we’ve been here is tremendous. In the last 2 years, 8 new businesses have opened in the 300 block."
The variety of buyers has been a pleasant surprise for Berger. "When we started, I thought that this would appeal to young professionals, but we’ve also had a lot of retired and soon-to-retire people looking and buying. It’s a very good mix."
Root For the Home Team
And it’s not just artsy stuff that brings people to the city. On summer nights, the Lancaster Barnstormers
of the Atlantic League bring as many as 7,000 people to the city for baseball and for the sheer delight of just being at the ballpark with friends. When the stadium opened in 2005, it marked the return of professional baseball to Lancaster for the first time since 1961. Many sites received consideration for the location of the stadium, and the choice of the city has proven to be a grand slam.
The Red Rose City is now in full bloom, and news of the city’s new identity is traveling. "The word is spreading," said Elizabeth Todd Lambert. "We have a great urban center here, and it’s on a smaller, more human scale. It’s a delightful discovery for visitors."
BILL SIMPSON writes about business in Lancaster. Send feedback here.