Our firm associates, staffers, and I have all been committed downtowners over the 25 years of our business existence. We’ve contributed to the start and development of many good things in many places, wherever our projects have taken us, but especially in our home base of Lancaster.
Some highlights: the 1977 Lancaster Design Guide was city-published to help property owners and commercial tenants understand how best to improve their architecture and signage; we nominated and placed Lancaster’s Southern Market on the National Register in 1986 — against the protests of some; we supported the designation of a 19-property historic warehouse National Register district in the 1980s; we advocated for a decade in favor of the city-wide Historic City of Lancaster National Historic District, finally placed on the National Register in 1999/2001 — comprising some 14,000 buildings — one of the largest NR districts in the nation; we’ve contributed decades and thousands of dollars worth of architectural and preservation services to the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, as well as personal board service to the Trust for more than 15 years; community service on Lancaster City Council, as the City’s delegate to the County Planning Commission, and we helped co-found the Friends of Central Market in 1997, and the Susquehanna Sustainable Business Network (SSBN) in 2006.
When the opportunity arose in 2008, to make the leap into our own downtown real estate development venture, growing out of our intention to expand and relocate our design studio to the heart of downtown, we decided the time for the next level of commitment had arrived. On the way to improving our own space, Community Heritage Partners saw this as a time to showcase our skills and demonstrate what could be done — if we could do it, then why not others ?
More than a year into our property search, the 200 block of West King Street spoke to us with an obvious need to rebuild community confidence and investment right there — beautiful but deteriorating historic architecture within sight of the new hotel and convention center — still building at that time, and just paces away from other established and growing downtown success stories — but somehow cut-off from the economic promise so evident, just the other side of Water and Prince Streets.
Years of study and practical experience with the projects and aspirations of our clients, had bred in us a recogniton that downtowns do not flourish by entertainment, business, and styling alone — there must be “bread” to go along with the “circus.” Downtowns need commerce ? — yes; safety ? – yes; good PR ? — yes; but they also need people who will proudly claim the city as their own place, people who will live there and care for it, occupy it, tend to its affairs, advocate for its place in regional decision-making — in sum, people who will LIVE downtown, not because they have no other options, but because they VALUE the life they can live there, and they see the value-added experience of city living as downtown’s competitive distinction with the suburbs and more rural places.
So, with all that background, what could become of a storefront-church used just 5 hours a week on the main street of one of the more vital surviving historic downtowns in all of Pennsylvania ? The space had been a vibrant commercial storeroom selling hardware, dry goods, equipment, and household needs from at least the 1870s until 1960. Since 1912 it was Beittel’s Racket Store, selling everything from nuts and bolts to household furnshings and even pets. But, tracking the decline of downtown living and demographics through the 1960s and ’70s, it transitioned into the local Thrift Shop, and 15 years later into the church, which occupied the space (and cared well for it, providing some genuine stability for the block in those years) until a year after we bought the property. We decided then to exchange the church for something more active on a daily basis — a use that would not only draw more rent than once-a-week meeting space, but that would provide vital service to downtown living, and would begin to restore a broad base of foot traffic to a block that many had unconsciously learned to avoid on their daily errand paths.
NEWSFLASH: To really LIVE in a place people need easy access to good, affordable and fresh FOOD !
Just a block away, Lancaster’s Central Market stands as the national example of the foundational value of food provisioning at the heart of a community — a lesson that Lancaster is still learning from and demonstrating to the rest of America. Sure, the market’s fun and interesting, a cultural icon, destination, experience…but it is above all ESSENTIAL to the city’s vitality for its food provisioning value to residents as well as downtown workers. And, out of that essential nature comes the foundational strength for the stability it offers the downtown.
Would we dare compete with Central Market, offering similar foods so nearby, and might we put the market at some risk ? Again, our downtown development experience reassured us that complementary competition adds value in any shopping destination — this is why we often see shops of similar type ganged together at a central crossroads or hub of commerce. More than one provider of any product or service marks the difference between a store or a restaurant and a destination of resources.
Into this framework stepped Expressly Local Food, LLC. In their 3rd year as independent fresh and local food purveyors, partners Kharran Cattell and Cheryl Young were seeking a full-time store location. Building on their 3 season incubation period at Lancaster’s Eastern Market, and winter months selling from Kharran’s front porch, they were feeling ready to become shopkeepers, to have a place where their customers could regularly find the best in Lancaster County fresh and value-added agricultural products. Convinced that a key component of downtown quality of life is access to real, wholesome foods that could feed a family, our development company, Community Design Works, Inc., put our storeroom and Expressly Local’s food savvy together. A new shop space was designed by Community Heritage Partners around Expressly Local’s needs in the old “Racket Store.”
This coming week, we are all celebrating their Grand Opening ! (Though they’ve been in and operating since late October.) The mayor will cut the ribbon, our lender, Community First Fund, will mark the event by announcing more news of continuing micro-enterprise lending, and lots of loyal customers will stop by to share the glow of this achievement.
As we see it this achievement belongs to us ALL. Yes, we’re the developers, architects, owners and operators of this property, but our grocer-tenants and the quality of their approach and products are a big part of the genius behind this scheme — more than shopkeepers and salespeople — they know good farming, good food, good eating, good cooking, and good value. Their customers come away with more than vegetables, fruits and meats; they learn who’s producing these foods, where they’re grown, how they can use these sometimes unfamiliar products — spaghetti squash, kale, parsnips, and more. And they get some renewed spirit for city living. All included in the modest cost of the groceries !
Lancaster Buy Fresh Buy Local is helping all of us stretch beyond our usual reach to discover what’s all around us in Lancaster County, and where to find it — the best food from the best farmland on the planet !
Community First Fund is helping us bring community life and commerce back to a block that has been trapped in a downward spiral for the past 50 years or more. We couldn’t do any of this without the intrepid residents, downtown workers, local buyers, and “intentional eaters” of Lancaster who are investing some of their household food budget into this new place. We appreciate that on-going act of commitment to buying local and buying downtown.
Today, thanks to Community First Fund and their investors, thanks to Expressly Local Food, and to nearly two years of our work and commitment, people living down the block, around the corner, or working at the courthouse and other downtown businesses just up the street, are coming to this block on daily or weekly errands with increasingly regularity. We’re hearing surprised observations about the beautiful architecture that survives there; they’re noticing the neighboring used furniture stores. Some ask when we might open a restaurant nearby, or maybe a cafe at least.
We have more undeveloped space above the store (3 floors), and an entire empty restaurant and 3-story historic inn and tavern building right next door. As community interest and confidence grow, so will reinvestment, so will our ability to renovate and re-occupy more underutilized space, and with the right sort of development decision-making and community support, so will everyone’s quality of life.
Expressly Local Food is open 7 days a week: Weekdays from 7:45 AM until 7 PM, Saturdays until 6 PM, and Sundays from 9 AM until 2 PM.
See you there !