Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray arrived in the city 40 years ago, at a time when the downtown arts scene comprised a handful of independent studios, and many historic buildings had fallen into neglect.
Still, Gray, who was practicing law at the time, and his artist wife, Gail, were enchanted by a city that was within easy reach of Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York City, but had none of the headaches of "megalopolis," he told an audience at Franklin & Marshall College's Common Hour Oct. 25. Within two months, the couple packed up and moved from Pittsburgh to North Prince Street -- and they've never looked back.
"We have lived in the same row house for 40 years," said Gray, who has served as mayor since 2005. "I have walked to work for 40 years. Gail can walk to her studio. For 40 years, we have been meeting for lunch. It's a lifestyle."
During a talk titled "The City of Lancaster: Its Past, Present and Future," Gray talked about the city's transformation into a regional arts and cultural center that celebrates historic preservation and sustainability. Lancaster now represents a "new urbanism," which is being emulated by other communities, he said. Even as it faces continuing challenges with a limited tax base and dated infrastructure, Lancaster offers a quality of life not found in most cities its size. In fact, the city of 60,000 people ranked No. 1 in the nation for maintaining a sense of well-being in a yearlong Gallup-Healthways survey
"This is a city where intellectual curiosity is nourished," Gray said. "The arts continue to flourish. We're getting into the retail level, where artists can support themselves with their art."
Gray addressed a crowd of several hundred students, faculty, staff and community members as part of F&M's Common Hour series, held throughout the academic year midday on Thursdays, when no classes are in session. The series is intended to bring the entire F&M community together for culturally and academically enriching events and to promote dialogue on vital international, national, local and institutional issues.
Gray said that College and city officials have worked together to make Lancaster not only a place where students may pursue a world-class education in the liberal arts but also an "inviting, open and interesting place to live." Under his seven-year tenure, the city and sponsoring partners that include F&M established First Fridays, in which dozens of galleries, restaurants, theaters, museums and shops stay open late with art show openings and live music on the first Friday of each month. With 60,000 people in a four-square-mile area where shops, restaurants and cultural venues abound, Lancaster is the quintessential "walkable" community, Gray said.
"The future is really with cities," Gray said. "The city is the place."
Gray has overseen historic preservation and sustainability initiatives, including the installation of green roofs and parking areas that allow water to flow through to the ground rather than to be channeled into stormwater drains. He explained that city planners assess whether new developments or renovations fit in with the existing neighborhood.
"We ask, 'Does it belong there?'" he said. "As part of the new urbanism, you look at the form of the property …. Urban renewal can be urban destruction if you aren't careful. We are not going to repeat the mistakes of the past."
City officials also are developing a 25-year stormwater management plan. The city's stormwater system was designed long ago to feed into the sewer system when the stormwater system is overwhelmed -- with the idea that the runoff would dilute the sewage before it was fed into the Conestoga River that runs through the city, Gray said. City officials are implementing a plan to separate the systems and keep the waste out of the river. The mayor said the city is considering imposing a fee to help fund the project.
After the talk, F&M student Evan Anway '13 from Old Lyme, Conn., asked Gray about the city's efforts to establish conservation areas in Lancaster.
"We've made green space a priority," Gray said, noting that the city plans to install 10 additional green roofs and establish tax credits for developers that incorporate energy-saving materials in their design plans and otherwise comply with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification standards.
Anway, an environmental science major, said he appreciated hearing a political leader speak about greening initiatives.
"It was great having a political perspective on environmental issues," Anway said. "It's absolutely essential to [make cities greener]. This is a great start for Lancaster"
Cynthia Krom '80, an assistant professor of accounting and organizations and a city resident, asked Gray what she could do to make Lancaster a better place to live.
Gray suggested that all residents work to dispel myths about Lancaster and "make sure people get the word out that the city is fun and delightful."
Katie Lane '14, a public health and Spanish double major from Blue Bell, Pa., said the talk made her feel more a part of Lancaster.
"I knew a lot about Lancaster, but I didn't know all of this," she said. "It helped me feel connected to the community."