Friday, September 5, 2008

A primer on the Lancaster Alliance

by Matt Henderson

NewsLanc had the opportunity to sit down with president of the Lancaster Alliance, Jack Howell, Thursday, to learn about who they are and what they do.

At the outset Howell took issue with the Lancaster Post's questioning the legitimacy of the Alliances' 501(c)3 status which allows contributors to take a partial credit against their federal taxes for donations and over the next hour he explained the work the Alliance performs in the public interest.

Howell joined the Lancaster Alliance in July 1999. Prior to that, he worked for the Cereal City Development Corporation in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Howell described the Lancaster Alliance as an association of local business leaders devoted to exploring economic development opportunities in the City of Lancaster.

"Think of it as a [Research & Development] department" or an "incubator," Howell said.

The Alliance has approximately 18 regional businesses represented on its board, which are listed on page 7 of the Aug. 22 Lancaster Post. The City and County are listed there for having given grants, but are not member organizations.

Members decide each year decide how much they want to give on an individually-negotiated basis.

Those member organizations collectively - as a board - decide which projects merit the Lancaster Alliance's attention and resources. The board meets once a month except in August.

Other independent and nonprofit organizations developed with the help of the Alliance include the Lancaster Community Safety Coalition, the Lancaster Streetcar Company, Lancaster Arts, the East King Street Improvement District, Keep Lancaster Beautiful, and the Lancaster Police Foundation.

The Lancaster Alliance also designed and implemented the city's way-finding signage, and worked on community design standards for street-scape improvements.

The Lancaster Community Safety Coalition is promoting the installation of surveillance cameras in certain areas of the city in order to reduce crime.

The Streetcar Company, chaired by Tim Peters, is considering implementing a trolley car line in downtown Lancaster. It has already purchased three used streetcars with private funds.

The Lancaster City Police Foundation collects private contributions to provide additional equipment for the city police. The city police department itself is a board member with the Police Foundation.

Through Lancaster Arts, the Lancaster Alliance helped give birth to the practice of "First Fridays" in downtown Lancaster.

The Lancaster Alliance itself had an operational budget of approximately $300,000 last year and employs two additional full-time staff members, according to Howell.

The operational revenue comes from the members. "Government grants are not used to pay salaries," he insisted. He noted that members did not know what other members were contributing until the revelation in the Lancaster Post article of August 22 taken from government filings available to the public.

A project that the Lancaster Alliance itself has conducted is the "Book Challenge" fundraising drive to benefit the School District of Lancaster and public libraries. A staff member said the program was founded in 1999 and has raised over $700,000 in cash and in books for city literacy programs.

Howell said that the Lancaster Alliance aims to "help relieve the tax burden of government" by securing private funding for community projects.

The "Lancaster Campaign" is a program of the Lancaster Alliance and not a legal entity in itself.

Asked about the distinction between the Chamber of Commerce and the Lancaster Alliance, Howell replied that the Chamber serves the County as a whole while his organization is focused on the City of Lancaster.

The Lancaster Alliance has taken no formal position on the Crossings at Conestoga Creek project or the associated proposed Route 30 interchange modifications.

The Alliance was not involved in securing funding for the recently-opened Pennsylvania Academy of Music. They had their own funding," he said. "We have to pick and choose our battles."

Howell said he had not been aware of the Lancaster Public Library’s desire to renovate and expand, but remarked, "I have been struck by the lack of emphasis on public libraries." He went on to express puzzlement that funding for the Lancaster Public Library is an issue of discussion in Lancaster whereas libraries are treated as more essential in other cities.

One thing the Alliance is "fully supportive" of is the Hotel and Convention Center on Penn Square, though the Alliance itself has not been involved in securing funding for that project. Howell pointed out that the Alliance had secured the "feasibility report" in 1999 but, when challenged, acceded that it was only a "market study." The report was generated prior to Howell’s arrival in Lancaster.

The Lancaster Alliance's vision called the "LDR plan" (which is available here) was penned in 1998. Though it was revisited in a 5-year update published in the Lancaster Sunday News on June 8, 2003, Howell admitted, "Its shelf life is wearing thin."

Concerning the 501(c) 3 status of the Alliance, Howell says he does not travel to Harrisburg or Washington, D.C. on behalf of projects and he is not a registered lobbyist.