Mayor Gray

Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray poses for a picture in Penn Square December 20, 2017.

When Mayor Rick Gray was sworn in for the first of his three terms in January 2006, he said of Lancaster: "Let's reach for the stars and make it the most livable city of its size in the United States."

Twelve years on, as he prepares to hand the reins over to successor Danene Sorace, Lancaster is a city lauded in the New York Post as a "mini-Brooklyn," teeming with "culture, design and a rich culinary scene."

Its population is growing. Its municipal finances are stable, its credit rating from Moody's a solid A1.

Civic leaders say Gray has been an exemplary, visionary leader.

"He's fostered great unity of purpose," said Carlos Graupera, president of the Spanish American Civic Association, or SACA.

Tom Baldrige, president of the Lancaster Chamber, said Gray "has restored investor confidence in our city."

That's reflected in investments by Fulton Bank and other companies downtown, projects that promise to add hundreds of additional jobs. And while economic distress in the southeast and southwest remains a thorny issue, new initiatives such as the SoWe neighborhood group and the Coalition to Combat Poverty bring promise of substantive change.

Gray says the most important turnaround of all has been the development in the Red Rose city of "an overall optimistic positive attitude about the future." That underlies everything else, he said.

'Enthusiastic leader'

Barbara Wilson said Gray's leadership was one of the reasons she decided to run for City Council. First elected in 2011, she recently stepped down to become executive director of the Lancaster City Housing Authority.

Gray has been willing to experiment, Wilson said, and he clearly cares deeply about Lancaster.

Among other things, she said she admired Gray's forceful advocacy for the Lancaster County Convention Center. The controversial project's future was doubtful when he took office, but his efforts helped close a multimillion dollar funding gap, and the complex opened in 2009 at the site of the former Watt & Shand department store on Penn Square.

Bob Shoemaker, former president and current project executive with the Lancaster City Alliance, said Gray believed in the spillover effect the convention center would have on downtown prosperity. He called Gray an "enthusiastic leader" and said he has the confidence of the private sector.

In Wilson's view, the administration was right to make downtown the focus of its revitalization efforts. Without a thriving center, "none of the outer parts can make it," she said.

Graupera, the SACA president, praised the rental inspection ordinance and other measures passed under Gray's watch to improve housing conditions and make it harder for slumlords to operate.

Gray, he said, "embraces diversity and inclusion." He made poverty a priority, and with the Poverty Commission and Coalition to Combat Poverty he set in motion a first-of-its-kind local effort to ameliorate it.

Rick Schuettler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, said Lancaster's administration under Gray has been "a model of good government."

Gray, who served as the league's president in 2015-16, has been a leading voice statewide on pension reform and other issues, Schuettler said.

'Dad would be proud'

Gray was a criminal defense attorney before becoming mayor, and still keeps his law license active. He and his wife, artist Gail Gray, have lived in the same house on North Prince Street for more than four decades.

Gray said he thought it was important for city government to think and act strategically. He insisted its strategic plan be short enough to fit on a single page, so people would actually read it.

The objective was always to orient efforts toward the city's overall welfare. That was the case in 2014, when the administration sold the former National Guard Armory on Chesapeake Street to Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. Construction there on Stevens' $23.9 million Greiner Center is now under way.

The city had hoped to use the site for a maintenance garage, but Gray decided it was more important to make way for Stevens' expansion and the social and economic benefit it promised.

"The advantages far outweigh the price, in the long run," he said at the time.

Unusually for municipal government, the same core team of department chiefs has remained with Gray throughout his 12 years, allowing for continuity and long-term planning and execution.

"No one has had a staff as stable as ours," Gray said.

In his final report to City Council, Gray called Sorace "the perfect person" to continue the city's progress.

Sorace said she's deeply grateful for Gray's stewardship, and for his guidance and openness in the run-up to her taking office. She'll be able to focus right away on her priorities; not all mayors have that opportunity, she said.

Gray said he initially plans to take three months off after Sorace's inauguration. He and Gail have a couple of trips in the works. After that, "I'll see what happens," he said.

He told City Council that when he graduated from high school in 1962, his father gave him a book, "The American Political Tradition," and wrote in it: "We are proud of your potential to become a part of this tradition."

"Well, I have been a small part of that tradition," Gray said, "and I think Dad would be proud."

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