In January 2006, Democrat J. Richard Gray — Rick Gray, to most — took the oath of office for the first of the three mayoral terms he would serve before deciding not to run again last year. Gray was a criminal defense lawyer before he became mayor (he has kept his law license active). He and his wife, artist Gail Gray, have lived in the same North Prince Street house for more than four decades. Now no longer mayor, he plans to take off three months before deciding what to do next.
Democrat Danene Sorace was sworn in Tuesday evening as the mayor of the City of Lancaster. Gray did the swearing-in. And thus began life in the city in the post-Gray era.
Despite what a vociferous, but relatively small, band of naysayers would tell you, Gray has left the city in fine shape. We laud him for his steady and visionary leadership.
“Let’s reach for the stars and make it the most livable city of its size in the United States,” he said in his first inaugural address, when such a goal seemed impossibly distant.
The city’s finances were a shambles. With a stagnant property tax base, and state mandates threatening to crush the city, difficult decisions had to be made — a reality that didn’t seem to daunt Gray, who had pushed through a controversial single-hauler trash program practically out of the gate. During his first term, Gray’s administration eliminated 21 city positions and implemented tax increases averaging 5.9 percent a year.
In 2010, Patrick Hopkins, the city’s director of administrative services, told LNP staff writer Jeff Hawkes he thought the city had five years before it was placed on the state’s list of financially distressed cities.
Fortunately, that never came to pass.
And now ...
It’s hard to remember those days now, as the city’s downtown teems with commercial and cultural activity not only during First Fridays but throughout the year.
The gem that is Lancaster Central Market has been polished during the Gray years, with its surrounding streetscape receiving a $2 million-plus upgrade.
Gray was a forceful and effective advocate for the construction of the Lancaster Marriott and Lancaster County Convention Center, built on the site of the former Watt & Shand department store on Penn Square. He believed the convention center would improve the prospects of downtown businesses and encourage growth, and despite opponents’ criticisms, he’s been proven correct. (The hotel was developed by Penn Square Partners, which consists of general partner Penn Square General LP, a High Real Estate Group LLC affiliate, and limited partner Penn Square Ltd. LLC, an affiliate of LNP Media Group, publisher of LNP and operator of the website LancasterOnline.com).
With Lancaster now vying to attract bigger conventions, the Marriott has been joined by the Lancaster Arts Hotel, the Cork Factory Hotel and Hotel Lancaster.
More people are moving into the city than moving out; those taking up residence include senior citizens with disposable income who want ready access to the city’s restaurants and cultural offerings.
Lancaster’s credit rating from Moody’s — a solid A1 — is one that cities like York and Reading can only admire from afar. This owes not only to the interest the city draws from investors, but from the stability of its fiscal management by the Gray administration — a stability that should hold, as Hopkins, Gray’s budget guy, is staying on in the Sorace administration.
So it wasn’t surprising that civic leaders hailed Gray’s leadership in Monday’s LNP.
“He’s fostered great unity of purpose,” Carlos Graupera, president of the Spanish American Civic Association, said.
Gray “has restored investor confidence in our city,” Tom Baldrige, president and CEO of the Lancaster Chamber, said.
The Gray administration served as “a model of good government,” Rick Schuettler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, said.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said the Grays “implemented a path and process for Lancaster ... enriching the lives of residents, and providing an environment that nurtures many artists and performers.”
Are things perfect in Lancaster city? No, they’re not.
Even as Lancaster’s downtown flourished under Gray’s stewardship, poverty kept a stubborn hold on the Southeast section of the city where, south of King Street, the poverty rate exceeded 40 percent in three census tracts.
In 2015, a Franklin & Marshall College report assailed the economic chasm between the city’s thriving downtown and its declining neighborhoods.
Not long after, Gray launched the Mayor’s Commission to Combat Poverty.
It was clearly needed. But our enthusiasm for the commission was tempered by the failure of other such bodies before it; we were skeptical about whether it was window dressing or a game-changer.
The jury remains out on that question, more than a year after the commission morphed into the Lancaster Coalition to Combat Poverty. Its aim is to cut in half the city’s 29 percent poverty rate by 2032. More specifically, the goals the coalition set out last year in its report, “One Good Job,” include moving 3,000 heads of households into living-wage jobs; and helping two-thirds of the workforce to acquire a postsecondary degree or certificate.
As LNP’s Hawkes has reported, the coalition has hired two part-time block captains; launched the CAPital Workforce team of ex-offenders, who rehab houses in the city; and started Lancaster Equity, a community development organization formed to work on housing and other projects on the city’s south side.
On the poverty question, Gray’s legacy lies with the success or failure of the coalition. And that part of the story won’t be written for years.
Saving the dream
But Gray without a doubt did a great deal to put Lancaster city on the map. It’s no longer an afterthought, the place where Central Market is located, and so an obligatory stop on a tour of Amish country. Lancaster County suburbanites now flock to the city to eat, to listen to music, to shop, to attend plays, to browse the art galleries (last month’s tree lighting in a jam-packed Penn Square was illustrative).
Politically, Gray was reliably Democratic, like most of the city residents he served — and a passionate champion for sensible gun regulation. But he also was a strong voice in Harrisburg for municipal pension reform, something that traditional Democrats have resisted (and that the LNP Editorial Board has strongly supported).
At his second inauguration in 2010, Gray recited lines from a Langston Hughes poem about a “dream in the land.” The poem concludes: “To save the dream for one, it must be saved for all.”
We hope that saving the dream for all is also an aim of his successor.
It should be noted that Gray’s successes were achieved in spite of Harrisburg and its byzantine and outdated laws that apply to and constrain third-class cities. He lobbied against those laws, to little avail.
But his voice was an important one in advancing Lancaster’s cause. And the city is better for his having led it.