GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER: If York County wants to compete in the world economy, it will have to embrace York City.

If York County wants to compete in the world economy, it will have to embrace York City.  (Some important questions here for our county commissioners and other leaders charged with growing York’s economy and making sure we are attractive to the best and brightest employees from around the world.  It turns out that shared prosperity is a formula for success, one that we are unfortunately not embracing.  If we want to “FIX YORK”, we need be consistent and clear in asking York county officials to do two main things:  a) champion mixed income housing all around the county and b) champion a countywide human relations commission.  Here’s why. . . 



I’m a city resident (and former suburbanite). I’ve worked in my own small way alongside countless others to try to help improve the downtown district. We have one of the most compelling, diverse, beautiful and dynamic towns around. We are very fortunate.

There are so many champions who are giving their all to make the city a great place (not just in the core of downtown but in neighborhoods all around our great city). There are many problems, of course, but we have enough momentum that we are gaining ground all the time.

** What many of us miss is that many of the problems of York city can’t be solved just within the borders of York city. That’s because the source of many of the problems is the concentration of poverty in the city and that is a structural issue maintained by officials in the suburbs.

Yes, it turns out that many of us out in the suburbs criticizing the city are partly responsible for the very problems we are decrying. We have consistently voted for leaders who maintain 72 sets of “MUNICIPAL BORDER WALLS” AND 16 sets of “SCHOOL DISTRICT BORDER WALLS” that wall people IN and maintain a concentration of poverty at the heart of our county.

York county, as we know, has 72 municipalities and 16 school districts. That’s a lot of bureaucracy, duplication and inefficiency.  For people who decry “too much government”, we sure do have a lot of governments!  Why would we efficient, frugal Yorkers cling to such an antiquated, cumbersome and expensive system?  72 little governments in one county!  A small area that is a municipality here in York county (with its own government officials, government office buildings and bureaucracy) would be a simple neighborhood association in Maryland.  That might have been reasonable in the 18th century when it took a half a day to get across York county in a horse and buggy.  But it is completely unnecessary now.  Maintaining this 18th century system doesn’t make sense to anyone but us. And that should tell us something. . .

There can be only one reason for maintaining these expensive inefficient walls: We York countians like being separated for some reason. We don’t want to be connected to the city. What is it about city residents that makes us willing to maintain an expensive inefficient system in order to keep us and our families separate from people in the city??

We York county residents really need to ask ourselves that question. Because it is precisely that decision to cling to our tiny municipal boxes that is maintaining a concentration of poverty at the heart of our county.  This not only hurts the city and its residents.  It also weakens the entire county and limits the future of ALL York county children for reasons we’ll explore in a moment.

All these municipal & school district boundaries wall families inside a core of poverty.   National urban expert David Rusk called this antiquated labyrinth of 72 little governments & 16 school districts “rocket fuel for separatism”.  The inefficient and destructive divisions within our county create a divisive climate that keeps our county from competing in the world economy.  Half of U.S. population will soon be nonwhite.  If we want to attract and retain the best and brightest, we can’t afford to be repelling half the country with the hostile climate that is bred by all our separatism.  If we don’t correct this soon, our county could get left behind.

Rusk published 2 major studies on York county and here is alink to both: ).

This is obviously about more than county economic competitiveness.  Our divisiveness has a devastating human cost.  One of the unfortunate results of all this provincialism is that we seem to care about a six year old child on the SOUTH side of Rathton Road, but we don’t care about that child’s friend across the street on the NORTH side of Rathton Road. Strange how a six year old child’s choice to live in a certain zip code determines whether or not we care about their future.

As Rusk explains so well, our city’s borders are inelastic and our tax base is declining. This puts the city in a tight financial squeeze.

To those who would point to the city accusingly, I would encourage them to realize that THEIR municipalities have inelastic borders and declining tax bases too. As Rusk put it, “Today’s winners are tomorrow’s losers.” So the best approach might be collaboration to work on solutions rather than pointing fingers and armchair quarterbacking.

Reducing poverty overall is the best course of action for York county. That’s something Rusk’s “mixed income housing all around the county” plan will achieve. People will be able to live near their workplace and their children will be able to get a great education in excellent nearby schools.

Having well educated citizens is good for everyone in York county. It also helps the economy by providing a strong workforce. Everyone wins when we (as Ronald Reagan put it) “Tear down these walls!” Being open and welcoming is good for our community, good for our economy and good for our own wallets. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun living in a strong dynamic community.

Pressure on the city is exacerbated by the fact that the city serves as the county seat (judicial center, county offices etc.). People from all around York county use those county offices (as well as the stadium, restaurants, Central Market, etc), but don’t bear much of the cost of the roads, police, fire and other infrastructure .. ***We ask the poorest residents in the county to foot that bill. It’s sort of like inviting yourself to an evening meal at your poor neighbors house all the time. (“Uh oh. Guess who’s coming to dinner… without paying the infrastructure costs… again).

We also have largely zoned against apartments and/or mixed income housing developments in the 71 municipalities outside the city. There are certainly many exceptions, but they don’t disprove the rule. One of David Rusk’s solutions for disbursing poverty is to incentivize mixed income housing all around the county so people can live near where they work and their children can attend quality nearby schools. The zoning restrictions in the 71 municipalities outside the city make this a real challenge.

Who are we York countians in the 71 municipalities surrounding the city trying to keep out with our zoning restrictions? What are we afraid of?

We really need to take a hard look at this because our fear is causing and insular divisive environment. And that insular divisive environment is holding back our county from being a thriving welcoming community (one that would be attractive to the best and brightest employees from around the world that our local companies are trying to attract and retain).

Soon, the majority of U.S. citizens will be nonwhite. Do we in York county think we can compete in the world economy and recruit the best and brightest when we are REPELLING half the best and brightest through our housing policies and our obsession with maintaining walls around 71 of our municipalities?

This is an important question for our county commissioners and other county officials charged with growing York’s economy. Those walls isolate the citizens of the 72nd municipality at the center and maintain a core of poverty.

Mixed income housing is successful all around the country, is very attractive in appearance and makes for a healthy dynamic community — a tide that lifts all boats. But in York county we seem to be averse to the very diversity that could strengthen our county and make it a welcoming place that attracts and retains residents.

This is a shame, because part of having a thriving city is having children thrive in school so they can get a good education and obtain good jobs. As Rusk’s data has shown time and time again, academic performance has a nearly straight line correlation to poverty. This is true all over the NATION. This means that by maintaining a housing structure in the county wherein poor children are mostly concentrated in one place, those children are far more likely to have poor academic performance. As Rusk puts it: “Housing policy is school policy.”

The recent attempt to privatize the entire city school system was an effort to try to solve a countywide issue by only making changes within the city limits. The leaders that pushed for it are good people. Their hearts were in the right place, but some of the leaders of that effort didn’t realize that they were fighting a losing battle by trying to fight a countywide problem by only making changes inside the city. The effort demanded no change on the part of county officials and county residents, no changes to all those walls (the real source of the problem).

Note: Statistically across the country, charter schools do no better than public schools — because they can’t fight the tide of that main driver of academic performance: poverty. If we aren’t willing to take on the main driver of academic performance, then we are not doing all we can to improve education.

And by focusing limited time and energy on an effort that was statistically unlikely to bring little any significant change in academic performance, we may have taken our eye off the ball and distracted ourselves away from the real task at hand: Disbursing the concentration of poverty at the heart of our county.

Some county residents cheered on the idea of handing our schools to a corporation. Their attitude was “We folks around the county don’t need to make any changes. It’s just ‘those people’ in the city who are the ones who need to get their act together.” They blamed teachers, parents, city political leaders. . . But those county residents failed to take responsibility for their own role in maintaining a core of poverty at the heart of our county that brings poor academic performance in city schools.

In doing so, they were completely ignoring the overwhelming data that showed that it was the clinging to our divisive little boxes (72 municipalities and 16 school districts) that is responsible for maintaining a core of poverty at the center of our county (a concentration of poverty that leads to poor academic performance).

Some said, “Rusk is no longer relevant.” So he returned to York DURING that debacle and updated his data. (Rusk has data on schools across the country and we are fortunate that this national expert has paid attention to our community).

His updated data once again showed a nearly straightline correlation between poverty and academic performance. This means that, compared to students around the nation in similar economic conditions, York city students are doing about as well as can be expected. ***We can’t fix the city school problem, then, until we fix the concentration of poverty that is being maintained in the heart of our county.

Residents who live in surrounding municipalities, therefore, should encourage their political representatives to take responsibility for their role in maintaining the concentration of poverty in the center of our county. Those residents should also ask their municipal and school district officials the most vital questions of all: “Do we really need all those walls? Do we really need all this bureaucracy? Do we really need all these municipal and school district officials?” Their answers will be very telling. 🙂

People around the county often lazily scoff at the city. When they do, they miss 5 things in my view:

– the ever growing dynamic downtown district (the ballpark, all the new housing, the renovated Central Market, dozens of new shops, many new restaurants and galleries and the 20 million dollar Yorktowne Hotel renovation are just a few of the dozens of great things happening.

– the fact that the city residents are subsidizing the county by hosting county offices with very little offset for infrastructure

– the fact that the county NEEDS the city. The best and brightest workers that we want to attract and retain want to live, work and play in a dynamic downtown. Without that, many York county companies would have a hard time attracting employees. That’s why large corporations around the area should be stepping up to the plate in an even bigger way supporting downtown development. Wellspan in particular falls way short compared to the enormous benefit they receive in recruitment. Wellspan does some good things of course, but the key measure is across the river: Lancaster General Hospital invests WAY more each year than Wellspan. And the results are clear.

– the fact that the city is in the county (Don’t cheer down your sister, York city! She’s a part of your family and you all rise and fall together. As a matter of fact, many of the challenges she’s facing, you are beginning to face too. You too have inelastic borders and a declining tax base and rising poverty levels. So you should be joining with York city to find cooperative solutions rather than cheering her down).

– and most importantly, suburban residents miss the fact that it is they and their township officials who are clinging to their “little boxes” behaving in a provincial manner to keep out people they deem undesirable (like renters). Many unfortunately want to live in an enclave rather than a strong dynamic community. So they support muncipal officials who maintain restrictive zoning. This makes it difficult to people in the city to move their families to a place that is closer to work, a place with quality nearby schools.

This would disburse the concentration of poverty and reduce poverty overall in our county. Instead of being a “donut” (a ring of relative prosperity surrounding a core of relative poverty), we could be a strong county. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts. Together we are one York.

We are also missing out on the prosperity that would come from a strong county human relations commission. York county has serious problems with the issue of race and we have the bias incidents to prove it. How on earth does York county expect to compete in the world economy if it’s repelling nearly half the people in the country (nearly half the country is non-white) because we fail to enforce common decency and a level playing field?

Large companies in the area should be demanding a countywide human relations commission so they can improve their recruitment and retention. The number of young African Americans and people of other backgrounds who have moved to the area and then left because of our insular unwelcoming divisive culture is astounding. (All those little boxes breed separatism and racism and until we get rid of that culture, we will have trouble competing in a world economy where HALF THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST EMPLOYEES ARE NON-WHITE)

So, to all those outside the city who badmouth it, you should try it out. Downtown is amazing. Lots of great restaurants, nightspots, galleries, farmers markets, shops, lots of beautiful new apartments, events, historic treasures, beautifully preserved architecture, incredible performing arts center and stadium and also a soon to be renovated Yorktowne Hotel.

Those outside the city who criticize it should also remember three things:

– The city is in the county.

– County residents play a significant role in creating some of the challenges the city faces.

– The county needs a thriving city if its going to compete in the world economy.

Our success over the next 20 years may largely depend on our ability to embrace and act on those three facts. Let’s get rolling. The clock’s ticking.

PS – To our COMMUNITY LEADERS who are in charge of economic development, positioning York county to compete in the world economy and making sure we are a community that attracts and RETAINS the best and brightest, we citizens of York county really need you to:

– champion and seriously incentivize MIXED INCOME HOUSING all around the county so people can live near where they work and their children can attend quality nearby schools. Your leadership is essential so municipal leaders and citizens can embrace this policy. We need you to rally the troops by showing them what we stand to gain by following this longstanding solution of Rusk and what we stand to lose by not following through.

– and we also need you to push hard in a sustained way for a strong well-staffed COUNTYWIDE HUMAN RELATIONS COMMISSION (since more than half the nation will soon be non-white and we can’t afford to keep driving the best and brightest away with an unlevel playing field and hostile divisive environment). I believe it’s important that you cultivate a climate where the largest companies in the area actually HELP create that countywide commission because they see how vital it is to enforce a level playing field if they want to attract and RETAIN the best and brightest.

To citizens of York county (including York city and the other 71 municipalities): I would encourage you to contact the county commissioners, York County Economic Development, your local municipal leaders and school district officials and tell them how much the incentivization of MIXED INCOME HOUSING and the establishment of a COUNTYWIDE HUMAN RELATIONS COMMISSION means to you and our community.

If we and our kids are going to thrive in the world economy, we and our leaders need to embrace 21st century solutions and values. LET’S DO THAT NOW BEFORE THE WORLD PASSES US BY.

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