Keystone Edge is spotlighting the state’s mayors, passionate Pennsylvanians who preside over everywhere from small towns to hip suburbs to thriving cities. Next up is Mayor Danene Sorace of Lancaster City, PA, a community of 60,000 people known for its powerful agricultural legacy as well as its vibrant downtown and creative community.
Keystone Edge: How did you find your way to public service?
Mayor Danene Sorace: When I first moved to Lancaster, I found it really easy to plug in. I got involved in a voter registration drive and was a local Democratic committee person. By being a committee person and just being active, I was asked to run for City Council. I said, “Yes.”
What’s on your wish list for Lancaster?
I’m going to give you the top three.
One is eliminating lead and lead poisoning from the city of Lancaster so that all children can start at the starting line and not behind it.
Two is figuring out how to financially sustain ourselves beyond an over-reliance on property taxes.
Our downtown is very successful. We are highlighted in national publications. AND we have a stubborn rate of poverty in some of our neighborhoods that is very challenging.Mayor Danene Sorace
A third wish is that we would be able to eliminate our combined sewer overflows without bankrupting the city. [The system] was never meant to support the number of people that currently live here. We’re working through a longterm plan right now with the EPA and we don’t have a sense of the price tag for the entirety of this work. It feels overwhelming in a time when we’re also up against climate change.
If you could snap your fingers and solve one problem, what would it be?
There’s one thing so clearly in my mind: If I could snap my fingers and eliminate poverty, I would do it.
I use the word “and” a lot to describe Lancaster. Our downtown is very successful. We are highlighted in national publications. We have a reputation of being so successful. AND we have a stubborn rate of poverty in some of our neighborhoods that is very challenging.
The income disparities continue to grow. You can’t afford an apartment anywhere in the country on minimum wage. And we also have a housing crisis in which we don’t have enough housing supply. There’s nothing exceptional about Lancaster that we’re not being affected by these national trends.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as mayor?
Our Lancaster City Bureau of Police has adopted a new use-of-force policy. It’s [part] of a package that has been really important for our community: hiring a police social worker, rolling out body cameras, deescalation training for every officer, and engaging in a community police strategic planning process, which is still underway.
I’m actually going to give you three. The second is beginning an Office of Neighborhood Engagement, really elevating residents and helping them address issues in their neighborhoods in a coordinated fashion with them leading the charge.
And then the third: We’re one of seven cities nationally to land $9.1 million — which was the highest amount of funding that you could get from HUD — to do lead abatement efforts. [That amount] is on par with cities like Baltimore, Detroit and Dallas, these huge, huge cities. So I feel really great about the coalition of people that we’re going to be able to support to make our homes safe for our kiddos.
What would surprise someone about the job of mayor?
Let me just say what surprises me. It’s the depth of my resolve — the toughness that you have to have in this position. I’ve been an athlete most of my life and thought that I had some level of mental toughness. But NO (laughs). There’s a degree of focus that’s required because you can easily get pulled off the line.
It’s like you’re on a [rope] bridge, the wind is blowing, you’re trying to get across, and people are trying to push you off. You have to just put one foot in front of the other. And then other times it’s sunny and bright and you’re making great progress.
Every day, hour-to-hour, the issues that we’re working on are so varied. I love that part. The other thing that surprises is the incredible people that you meet.
Describe your ideal weekend in Lancaster City.
Lancaster has all the things and it’s a great place to raise a family. My ideal weekend in Lancaster city is a combination of some downtime at home with my family and some time in our neighborhoods — block parties, different kinds of events that are happening — and a really nice dinner out.
Anywhere in particular?
I took the advice of [my predecessor] Mayor Gray to never ever say my favorite restaurant (laughs). I asked him the same question once and he said, “I can never tell. You’re guaranteed to upset someone.”
Can you describe Lancaster in one sentence?
Lancaster is rooted in values that harken back to the agricultural roots of our community and is progressive, all at the same time.
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