Lancaster City on the Rise

It’s Friday night and the Horse Inn is packed. There’s a wait for a table in the main dining room and the front bar is filled with pairs of diners and drinkers sipping on craft cocktails — perhaps a “Call to Arms” (Rittenhouse rye, Zaya rum, ruby port, boiled cider, pressed lime, Angostura) or a Doctor’s Orders (Market Alley gin, house tonic, basil, cardamom, grapefruit water) — and local craft beer.

It’s a scene that could be replicated in almost any major metropolitan area in the country: buzzing voices, plenty of dapper young urbanites, vintage jukebox, nostalgic bar games and low lighting.

But in other ways, you could be nowhere else but Lancaster City. The menu is rife with products from local farms. This is an eatery just as comfortable serving galumpkis (traditional stuffed cabbage) as it pairing pork shoulder with kimchi fried rice. If you watch long enough, you realize just how many folks seem to know each other. When a young couple gets engaged two tables over, the whole restaurant explodes in applause. The Horse Inn has actually been a drinking establishment since the 1920s, and while the new owners have spruced up the interior — horse stalls from its original use as a hayloft house booths — the space’s essential spirit remains untouched. It’s a classic Lancaster story: taking something old and good, and making it better.

That narrative is being replicated all across this Pennsylvania city. A new generation of locals, transplants and repatriates are transforming this compact burg, shifting the reputation of a metropolis that’s long been in its famous county’s bucolic shadow.


Ryan Martin, co-founder of Infantree, a local marketing and branding company, can trace his Lancaster heritage back 13 generations, but that didn’t stop him from moving away after college — first to Philadelphia, then to Harrisburg.

“Growing up in the county — Strasburg, which is southeast of the city — we didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to come downtown, except for Central Market on Saturday mornings,” he recalls. “My grandmother had a stand at Market for 60 years. She sold flowers. My grandfather was a grower. My parents were florists. That was the best part of Lancaster City for me, coming downtown to be part of that community on Saturdays.”

During those years away, Martin started to hear murmurings of a change happening in his native land. That tight-knit community he recalled from his youth felt like an opportunity. He moved back and eventually teamed up with Ryan Smoker, launching Infantree out of a fourth-floor loft above Prince Street Cafe. The popular coffee shop became both their landlord and their client. The company’s team has since grown from two to 12, serving the growing slate of local retail boutiques, breweries, distilleries, restaurants, city organizations and nonprofits.

Lancaster Central Market

“Over the last 15 or 20 years, but really in the last eight years, we’ve seen a real significant change downtown,” says Martin. “Galleries came in and started a little bit of a groundswell. We saw some refreshed boutiques coming in. The restaurant scene followed quickly on its heels. Businesses actually wanted to move from the suburbs to find locations downtown. With that came micro-industries: distilleries, breweries. All the clients that we serve. It’s been wild to be a part of that.”

Being a local also has its advantages.

“All of the work we’ve done from a branding and marketing perspective has been through word-of-mouth referral,” he continues. “We’ve built a business on this community. I’d say 60 to 70 percent of the work that we do is within a 30-mile radius of our downtown office.”

Last year, Martin and Smoker actually became their our own clients, opening Ellicott & Co., a shop on Market Street selling American-made men’s clothing and accessories. The pair works with local makers — leatherworkers, metalworkers, textile workers — to stock their shelves.

The city is proving to be a fertile place for fledgling companies to find a toe-hold. Technology startups have a host of affordable office space and coworking options to choose from including the ever-expanding Candy Factory (profiled in our first feature on ‘The New Lancaster’) and PubForge. The latter, located above beloved bar and music venue Tellus360, is geared towards technologists: developers, programmers, designers.

One former tenant is Matthew Ranauro of BeneFix, a startup that simplifies the health insurance market for small businesses. He is another repatriate, having moved back to his hometown after stints in New York, San Francisco and Boulder, Colo.

“Being back here, it’s unbelievable,” says Ranauro. “The community is super tight. There’s definitely a lot more tech than when I grew up here. I can’t really ask for a better place, especially in this industry.”

Since last fall, BeneFix has quintupled their client list and, in doing so, outgrew Pubforge. But they didn’t go far, moving into a 2,400 square foot space on S. West End Avenue.


Mayor Rick Gray has witnessed Lancaster City’s evolution firsthand: He’s lived in the same house on Prince Street — what he calls “the best $18,000 he ever spent” — for 44 years.

“During a lot of those years, you’d look outside at 11 p.m. and there was nobody on the street,” he recalls. “Now, if I go outside at 11 p.m. and look up and down Prince Street, there are people on both sides of the street walking. People have come back to the city. I think that’s true of a lot of our cities: I hear it from York, I hear it from Harrisburg, Bethlehem, Easton.”

The mayor credits two specific demographics with repopulating downtown: young people and baby boomers.

When it comes to millennials, “they want to be in the city,” he says. “I grew up with Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best — TV shows that represented suburbia as the promised land. My kids grew up with Sex and the City, Seinfeld, Friends. All urban settings. They want walkability. They don’t want car dependency. I can walk to 30 restaurants from my house.”

Meanwhile, many empty nesters are tired of mowing grass. They also want to ditch their cars, especially as they age. Downtown development reflects that demand: apartments and condos are being built that specifically target those 55 and older.

New lofts in Lancaster City

Gray, whose wife is an artist, also credits the vibrant arts scene with downtown’s resurgence.

“We have work by Lancaster artists hanging all over City Hall,” he says. “There have always been a lot of artists here because of the affordability and easy access to the major markets. In the last 10 to 15 years, [we went] from a wholesale market to a retail market. I know locals now that can make a living being an artist, which is a difficult thing to do.”

Jeremiah Linton

After graduation, Linton spent two years in Philadelphia, but Lancaster drew him back.That creative energy translates to craftspeople as well. RudeWood Design‘s Jeremiah Linton grew up in South Jersey. He met his business partner Alex Rudegeair at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster where they both studied carpentry. These days, the duo does custom woodwork with a focus on commercial restaurant and bar furniture.

“I moved [to Philadelphia], and was networking and working with different people,” he recalls. “When I moved away, I was like, ‘I didn’t make any lasting connections.’ But in the two years I’ve been here, I’ve made a lot of friends, built a lot of relationships. I think the business community in Lancaster is really into helping each other out. When one of us is successful, we can give back to the others in some kind of way.”

Rudewood is based out of an old printing facility, and they’ve created an impromptu collective, renting extra space to other artisans. Most of the company’s work is local. Very local.

“All of the jobs we’ve done in Lancaster City, we’ll walk there,” he says. “I think we’ve benefited a lot from coming here instead of staying in Philly.”


From old manufacturing facilities to heritage homes, there are all sorts of unique spaces on offer in Lancaster City. The built environment — well-lit sidewalks, historic buildings, industrial relics, charming brick rowhomes — can surprise visitors familiar with a Lancaster County brand based on buggies and dairy cows. Notably, the city boasts dozens of old tobacco warehouses that have survived and been converted into work and living spaces.

The Nimblist offices in Lancaster City

“It was the best thing we’ve ever done,” she recalls. “We really wanted [a living space] that would fit into our creative aesthetic as a couple and was more unconventional. We had looked and looked for a warehouse space and found the space that we have now. It has such a creative soul and energy to it. I knew the minute we walked through that building, it was where we were meant to be.”One of those loft-livers is Deborah Barber. An employee at Nimblist (formerly Performance Environment Design Group), Barber moved to the Harrisburg area after college, where she met her husband. Twenty years ago, they moved to Lancaster County and then, seven years after that, into the city.

Until last year, Barber’s work was still in the capital, but she wanted a job closer to home. Nimblist is a perfect example of the kind of mid-sized, creative-economy company that thrives here. The seeds for the enterprise were sown almost 20 years ago by Spike Brandt — who’s local to Lancaster — and L.A.-based Justin Collie. They met as roadies and came up through the lighting and design world. The business, which creates environments for live events, has since grown to about 20 employees. Clients include the NFL, musical acts, the Robin Hood Foundationand the SyFy network. The company is part of a booming event production industrycentered around Lancaster City and nearby Rock Lititz.

Deborah Barber

As Nimblist grows, the staff is evolving.

“When I came in, pretty much everyone was local,” recalls Barber. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve hired and relocated two people from out of state. We have a third person slated to start with us [last] December who is moving from another country. We have a fourth person who we hired as a result of her partner being relocated to TAIT [in Lititz].”

Barber thinks there are still things Lancaster City could do to ease the way for those transplants.

“One thing I’ve noticed and heard from our staff is that we don’t seem to have many realtors who handle the rental market,” she explains. “We’re looking for highly-skilled programmers and lighting designers — it’s a competitive market. It’s not easy to find those people, and when you do find them, I need to be able to tell them there are some cool places for them to live and a range of cool places for them to go out and eat.”

Part of that mission includes dispelling preconceived notions. Fortunately, often all it takes is a visit.

“We rent out one of our rooms on Airbnb,” says Barber. “The people we’ve had stay all say, ‘We had no idea that Lancaster would be like this’ or that ‘you have so many cool places,’ or that ‘living spaces like what you have exist.’ If you want that funky warehouse, there are those spaces. There are condos. There are single-family homes that are gorgeous and historic. And there are really quaint rowhomes that people have taken and redone.”


If all it takes is exposure to fall in love with Lancaster City, then Susan Louie and her husband Rafael Perez are Exhibit A. Before opening their charming French BYOB Citronnelle, the longtime New York City residents experienced the city via friends who moved south.

Citronnelle in downtown Lancaster

They purchased the property on Orange Street in 2009, moved to Lancaster City permanently in 2012 and opened Citronnelle in 2013. The couple were not experienced restauranteurs: Louie was fashion designer and her husband a chef. They had to learn the business from scratch, and figure out what exactly people wanted to eat in this part of Pennsylvania. The team buys everything locally, mostly from nearby Central Market. Seasonal ingredients go into dishes like grass-fed, pasture-raised New York strip with a mushroom-and-potato roulade or their signature creamy crab croquettes, served on a bed of cucumber salad and topped with yuzu wasabi aioli.“We started visiting them and fell in love with the place,” recalls Louie. “We bought a [weekend] house, but weren’t fully committed yet. We were both still working in New York. Then we saw this building — which was an abandoned print shop — and thought, how about changing our lifestyle?”

“We don’t have shoo-fly pie here,” explains Louie with a laugh. “We don’t have buttered noodles…We see a lot of people who come in here a little trepidatious. They read an ingredient on the menu and aren’t sure what it is. But we’re so happy to explain it to them. We’re not an uptight restaurant. We’re not hoity-toity — we just want to feed people. And if they learn a little something about what they’re eating, it’s great.”

Fortunately, a growing number of eateries are catering to the city’s changing palette, whether it’s students looking for fast-casual poke at Chop Sushi or couples nibbling on Neapolitan pizzas at the perennially packed Luca. The restaurant community knows that the city’s growing reputation as a foodie haven benefits them all.

“In New York, there are so many restaurants that you can’t really get to know anybody; they come and go so fast,” says Louie. “We’ve made friends with so many other restauranteurs. They’re so supportive of us, especially because we’re so little and just starting out. There’s a really nice sense of community here.”

Daniel Falcon is another local restauranteur. He came to the area from Puerto Rico 38 years ago when he was two. It is hard to tell the story of Lancaster City’s resurgence without talking about the Latino population which makes up almost 40 percent of the municipality’s 60,000 residents. They are an essential part of the small business community, whether that’s running neighborhood groceries or contributing to the diversity of downtown offerings.

Falcon was always trying to find a way to work from himself, growing a mall kiosk business into four clothing stores before changing course and getting into two of the city’s booming industries: real estate and night life. In September 2014, he opened Lancaster Cigar Bar on King Street. He has since bought up more property in the same building, launching Old San Juan Latin Cuisine and Rum Bar, and is hard at work on another concept across the hall: a neighborhood pub with a Prohibition-era vibe.

Crab croquettes at Citronnelle

“Lancaster has a solid economy, and one way to attract young professionals to your city or town is to give them something to do when they’re done working,” he explains. “I think Lancaster is doing a good job at providing night life. I think we can do better, and we’re on our way there. I think the local government has been pretty supportive of that whole idea.”

Susan Louie and Rafael Perez

“There seems to be more a demand for people wanting to live in the city,” he says. “People are actually selling their homes in the suburbs and moving into the city. Once that started happening, the demand for higher-end rental properties went up. Investors are meeting those demands. I’m in the rental business, so that’s what I’m doing with my units. I’m fixing them up and making them a little nicer, collecting more rent as well.”While the city’s growing population is obviously great for Falcon’s bars and restaurants, it has also impacted his real estate investments.

Nicole Vasquez is another young Puerto Rican entrepreneur. She grew up in Lancaster City, spending most of her childhood on West King Street. From a young age, she loved fashion and dreamed of opening her own clothing boutique. Flash forward to 2012, when she launched That Shuu Girl at the tender age of 25.

“Something I love about downtown Lancaster City is you don’t see any franchises,” she says. “When you go into a small business, you’re pretty much meeting the owner and you feel welcome, you feel comfortable.”

Vasquez credits local groups like the Lancaster City Alliance and ASSETS’ Women’s Business Center with helping her figure out how to run her business and connect with local designers.

Luca in Lancaster City

That reliance on community — both in terms of organized resources and likeminded peers — was something repeated again and again by residents and business owners.

“I have found an absolute love for the community here,” says Martin from Infantree. “If you do right by them, they take really good care of you. We’ve been able to survive because of the whole ‘buy local’ thing. Lancaster has a whole different appreciation for it: People here want to support anything that is authentically Lancaster.”

LEE STABERT is editor-in-chief of Keystone Edge. Tell her your favorite things about Lancaster @stabert.

This is the second installment in a series of stories Keystone Edge will be publishing on the evolving identity of Lancaster (read the first feature here). This content was created in partnership with the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County and partner organizations.

All images by Lee Stabert

Nimble Thimble gets NuLife: Downtown sewing shop opens door to a program for at-risk women

ASSETS client and participant in the 2015 Great Social Enterprise Pitch, NuLife, is making news!

Schirlyn Kamara, left, runs a nonprofit called NuLife that makes and sells recycled fabric products. They are going to take over most of the space occupied by Nimble Thimble, owned by Mort and Ruth Nierenberg, both pictured, and are receiving help from Millersville University students who are remodeling and repurposing the space for a service learning class at MU on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. SUZETTE WENGER | LNP Staff Photographer

A couple of months ago, Schirlyn Kamara stopped by the Nimble Thimble sewing shop in downtown Lancaster.

She runs NuLife, a social enterprise that teaches at-risk women to sew. They make items from recycled fabric — clothing, accessories and household goods — to sell online.

Kamara thought Nimble Thimble might have some leftover fabric or other supplies to donate. While there, she got to talking with Mort Nierenberg, who runs the shop at Central Market Mall with his wife, Ruth. The couple are in their late 80s.

“He jangled his keys at me … and said, ‘I think I’ve been waiting for you,’ ” Kamara recalled.

Sometime this spring, Kamara plans to move NuLife into Nimble Thimble’s location on the lower level of the mall at 45 N. Queen St.

The details are still being worked out, but NuLife is planning to have classroom and retail space there. Nierenberg, an expert sewing machine repairman, plans to continue doing repair work there while passing on his skills to a new generation.

He said the prospect of handing off the shop space to NuLife makes him “joyous.”

The Nierenbergs have owned and operated Nimble Thimble for about a half-century. They moved it into the mall when they bought the building in 1978, according to newspaper records. They subsequently sold the property, but remained as tenants.

“It’s a huge project,” said Howard Jones, a board member of Handz on Hope, the nonprofit organized by Kamara that is NuLife’s parent organization.

MU assisting

Ruth Nierenberg, seated, who owned Nimble Thimble for over forty years, watches as Millersville University students Juan Martinez and Courtney Lynn help to remodel/repurpose the store for a service learning class.
SUZETTE WENGER | LNP Staff Photographer

Kamara has plenty of help, thanks to two Millersville University professors and their students.

About 25 undergraduates in professor Minoo Ghoreishi’s service learning seminar have been visiting Nimble Thimble weekly this semester to take inventory and clean out decades of clutter.

Later on, the students will design and set up displays, create signage and complete other tasks. Last semester, they taught basic business classes to NuLife clients, and that will continue, Ghoreishi said.

Meanwhile, more than 65 students in classes taught by professor Lexi Hutto have been creating brochures, videos and a social media campaign for NuLife.

Future projects include a marketing plan, merchandising and fundraising. Hutto said she is seeking donations of displays and other supplies.

The two professors’ classes are independent of each other, though some students have been in both, including senior Juan Martinez.

The seminar, he said, “teaches us to teach other people,” as well as to identify community needs and take action.

“A lot of people who go to Millersville (University) plan on owning their own business,” senior Courtney Lynn said. The seminar gives students a realistic feel for what’s involved, she said, likening it to an apprenticeship.

Senior seminars are required in a number of MU majors; service learning is one of the options for business majors.

“We want students to be community oriented,” Ghoreishi said. “We really emphasize the ethical angle.”

Helping nonprofits

Adam Good hands off a sewing book to Jordan Johnson, both Millersville University students who are helping to remodel/repurpose the Nimble Thimble for a service learning class.
SUZETTE WENGNER | LNP Staff Photographer

Each year, participants enter a national competition sponsored by Enactus, a nonprofit devoted to using entrepreneurship to promote social welfare. MU has won the regional championship five times since 1998, Ghoreishi said.

Hutto and Ghoreishi have worked with other nonprofits. Students get hands-on experience, and cash-strapped organizations get assistance they could not otherwise obtain.

When students work for a real-life client, “I think they take it more seriously,” Hutto said. “It takes a lot more effort, but I think the rewards are worth it.”

Kamara said it’s been her dream to have a shop to sell NuLife goods.

Besides a retail area in the front room, there’s a workshop, a storage room, a back room where the classroom will be, and even a small kitchen: about 4,000 square feet in all.

A 2015 participant in the Great Social Enterprise Pitch, a project of ASSETS and the Lancaster County Community Foundation, Kamara has received donations through crowdfunding and from the foundation, and is seeking additional support.

“We’ve got a lot to do,” she said.

Sweet Jobs Give Immigrants New Opportunities

ASSETS client and participant in the 2015 Great Social Enterprise Pitch, The Stroopie Co., is making news!

The Stroopie Co. in Pennsylvania Employs Refugees to Make Unique Cookies

If you’ve ever heard of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, you’re probably aware that it’s home to one of the biggest populations of Anabaptist religious sects, such as the Amish and Mennonites, in the United States. You may not know that it sits near the heart of Pennsylvania’s enormous sweets industry, just next door to the candy-making mecca of Hershey; and that the county accepts hundreds of refugee immigrants every year.

The Stroopie Co., a small Lancaster company that manufactures Dutch-style cookies, has a mission to hire and train refugee women as its workforce. The company’s hiring practices reflect its community’s history and spirit.

“We were looking for a really practical way to love our neighbor well,” says Jennie Groff, who co-owns “Stroopie” with her husband, Jonathan. She worships in an Anabaptist church that focuses on supporting refugees. “The company fits my roots,” she says.

Stroopie’s was started in 2008 by Ed McManness and Dan Perryman, who remain part-owners. The goal was always to provide “meaningful employment” to local refugees; McManness’s family had enjoyed Dutch “stroopwafels” — a cinnamon cookie made in a waffle iron with a layer of caramel inside. The circular cookies rest perfectly on the lip of a mug of steaming hot tea or coffee, which softens the caramel filling. The Stroopie Co. makes one version half-dipped in chocolate.

“They’re hard to find in the States. It gave us something we could market,” Jennie Groff says. “We knew if we were going to establish a social enterprise, we needed to provide a great product.”

The Groffs joined the enterprise in 2010, bringing with them Jonathan Groff’s lifetime of experience in his family’s candy-making business.

Today, Stroopie’s employs six refugee women — three from Myanmar and three from Syria. Another employee manages the staff and acts as an ESL teacher. Employees typically stay a year or two before moving on, Groff says.

“The refugee women we’re hiring, they’re super-motivated, thankful, great workers. Just a huge, huge asset to our company. I just can’t imagine taking our family and having to start over in a new place. We view it as a deepest privilege to provide a job with dignity.”

Mary Myint, an “expert Stroopmaker,” offers her testimonial on the Stroopies website: “I like my job because my schedule is nice for my children. When we lived in Myanmar and Malaysia, we were scared of the police. In the USA all the people are equal, so my family loves the USA.”

Workers start out making $11 an hour, Groff says, then move up to $12 an hour after training. The owners want to eventually pay a wage of $15 an hour, and perhaps even start giving the women part ownership of the company.

Getting to that point, however, requires that Stroopie’s take a big next step.

Filling Out the Mission

“We need to make a profit in a more sustainable way before we can consider granting ownership shares,” Groff says. “We are holding our own, we’ve been breaking even. … For a small company, that’s something to celebrate.”

In 2015 Stroopie’s won “The Great Social Enterprise Pitch,” a local competition meant to encourage businesses that “perform a social good while also making a profit.” The prize: In-kind products and services worth more than $25,000, meant to help the company grow. Stroopie’s used its winnings — along with money raised from Indiegogo as part of the competition — to open a retail storefront in Lancaster, where the cookies are made and sold directly to the public.

“The biggest thing — it gave us a platform to tell our story,” Groff says of the competition. “The community really rallied behind us.”

The company also distributes its product in nearly 70 stores across the United States and is pitching bigger retailers.

“We feel like we’re poised and ready to grow,” Groff says. “We’re still relatively small, but every year we gain momentum and get our story out there.”

Groff says she is confident the company will continue to grow, increasing profits and employing more refugees.

“Both have to be equally strong — you have to have passion for both things — or it’s not going to be sustainable, it’s not going to work,” Groff says.

Small Change. Big Difference.

ASSETS is the #GiveLocal recipient of March and April 2017!

Launched in 2017, Lemon Street Market’s #GiveLocal project is a register round up initiative designed to support Lancaster organizations whose missions align with ours.

Customers can elect to “round up” their purchases to the nearest dollar when they check out, with proceeds donated to the featured organization for that month. Customers can also choose to increase their at-the-register donation by adding to their round up value. By shopping at Lemon Street Market, customers are directly supporting more than 75 local farmers and vendors, and even more through local distributors like Lancaster Farm Fresh, Oasis, and Four Seasons. For each dollar spent at a local, family-owned business, 80% is put back into the local economy. For every dollar spent at large, corporate owned stores, only 20% makes it back into the local economy.

Help us to contribute even more to our community by choosing to #GiveLocal when you check out at Lemon Street Market.

Eastern Mennonite University Alumni Help Build ASSETS

Jessica King ’96, executive director of ASSETS, visits with The Stroopie Company owner Jennie Groff (right, facing) and two employees, both refugees. (Photo by Jon Styer)

WITH HOLIDAY DEMAND ON THE UPSWING, The Stroopie Company went to two shifts in early November, allowing them to churn out up to 6,000 Dutch stroopwafels (cinnamon-y, carmel-y goodies best enjoyed with a hot beverage) a week. All six workers running the show at the company’s small production facility in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are refugees: three from Burma and three from Syria. Once a day, they sit down with the store manager, who is also a certified ESL teacher, for a half-hour English lesson.

As a certified B Corporation, The Stroopie Company measures its success by social and environmental standards in addition to the profit column – hence the language classes and $11-an-hour starting wage offered to refugees otherwise facing limited employment prospects. Alone, however, these commitments don’t solve the challenges of solvency and profitability facing any small business. To help meet them, The Stroopie Company has turned to ASSETS, a nonprofit that has worked to create economic opportunity and reduce poverty in and around Lancaster for more than 20 years.

One of the organization’s new programs, says executive director Jessica King ’96, is called the Great Social Enterprise Pitch, which offers a series of business-planning workshops to 10 entrepreneurs who prioritize social and environmental well-being. After the workshops, five participants pitch their ideas to a panel of judges and compete for more than $50,000 in cash and services.

King with Director of Development Tina Campbell ’99 (left) and Finance Director Rosanne Jantzi ’89. (Photo by Tyler Naples)

“It gave us the confidence that we had a great idea going,” says Jennie Groff, one of the company’s owners. “We really feel like we’re poised to grow.”In 2015, The Stroopie Company won the competition, coming away with donated legal services, a free photo session for a new product catalog, and cash that it invested in new equipment.

Lancaster is a welcoming and generous community that resettles more refugees and gives, on average, more to charity than anywhere else in Pennsylvania. By integrating this philanthropic impulse into a workable business model, King says, “impact businesses” like The Stroopie Company are able to fund their own pursuit of a greater good.

“[The Stroopie Company] is a means to an end. The end is about helping their neighbors have better lives,” she says. “There are a lot of ways you can do that. Making cookies is their way of doing that.

“It’s amazing to see the kind of impact that [employers] can have on the lives of people around them, their neighbors and their employees, regardless of what their business is. It’s the spirit of ‘how’ they do it,” King continued. “It might not be all that bright and shiny, but it really matters to people. That’s what really gets me excited.”

Through its various programs, ASSETS provides training and lending to entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups as well as the impact businesses committed to social and environmental goals. During the most recent fiscal year, it supported the creation of 40 new businesses and more than 70 jobs, provided loans or long-term training to more than 150 entrepreneurs, and involved nearly 1,500 businesspeople and community members in other programs and events.

“We believe in the power of business to transform our communities for good,” says Tina Campbell ’99, director of development. “But we are also convinced that it must be equitable transformation – that all races, ethnicities and cultures must be included for true economic development to happen in our own communities.”

According to board member Kevin Ressler ’07, an important part of this vision has been ASSETS’ expanding focus over the past several years to supporting impact businesses in addition to entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups.

“This work breaks down the barriers of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and begins to see that ‘we’ is our only hope moving forward to maintain a country full of communities that don’t just co-exist but co-create and thrive together.”

Since 2008, The Stroopie Company has employed 16 refugee women in its kitchen. Many have used it as both a landing and a launching pad, a welcoming place to build experience and improve their English before moving on to other things. Recently, when a TV news crew stopped by for an interview with one of the Syrian workers, Groff called in an employee who’d just left to provide some translation help. Watching from the sidelines, Groff was struck by the poise and fluency the former employee had developed, at least in part, right there in the stroopwafel kitchen.

“She came here hardly wanting to say anything. To be able to see how she’s leaving us – it just was hugely encouraging,” says Groff. “That is totally what motivates my husband and me. It is just so rewarding to see our refugee employees come in and gain confidence. You can just almost see it happening before your very eyes.”

Organization offers weightlifting, fitness as outlet for at-risk youth

ASSETS client and participant in the third annual Great Social Enterprise Pitch, Will Kiefer of the Bench Mark Program, is making news!

Will Kiefer, left, coaches a program student, Dom, on Olympic-style lifting. – (Photo / Scott Kingsley Photography)

When Will Kiefer took a study abroad trip to South America as a pre-med student at Franklin & Marshall College, he had no inkling that the trip would lead him to the unique idea to start his own business.

January marks the three-year anniversary for the Bench Mark Program, one of the more selfless and significant small businesses in the region. Kiefer and his staff provide long-lasting, positive support to at-risk youth who wouldn’t receive that support from anyone else.

Bench Mark uses a unique approach to provide an outlet for physical fitness, academic counseling and career coaching. Students received guidance for as long as is needed with the ultimate outcome being academic success, employment and mentorship opportunities.

“When I was in South America, I did research on the communities that I was involved with,” Kiefer said. “When I came back to Lancaster, I was looking for the community connection. I realized that I didn’t really know Lancaster at all. I started asking myself, what do I have to offer other people? I enjoy weightlifting and fitness.

“I asked some professors for their thoughts on what I could do,” Kiefer continued. “I thought that I could have a positive impact on high school students who had low self-esteem.”

A few connections later, Kiefer found himself working with at-risk youth and youth who had been incarcerated. That was the start of the Bench Mark Program. Rather than relying upon traditional therapy methods that have been used and reused over and over again, Bench Mark focuses its program around weightlifting and fitness as the bond to overcome adversity, and it creates a safe and positive environment that doesn’t exist on the streets.

Despite the program’s growing reputation, what Kiefer and his team do isn’t something that comes naturally, and it also isn’t easy to make connections with these kids.

“On the back of my business card it says two things: ‘Be who you are’ and ‘Figure out who you want to become.’ ” Kiefer said. “That philosophy has allowed us to build a connection that allows the young people to ask for help. They come in with low expectations — it’s just another program, it’s just another white guy who has the solution to all my problems.

“I allow them to explore the space, listen to music and they can work out if they want to, or not,” Kiefer went on. “I give them days, sometimes weeks, before I even ask them about what’s going on at home or if I can help them. Then we go through this period of confusion — What’s this guy trying to do? Is there a fee? Is there some work I have to do here? After that phase passes, then they let me in a little bit. They are refreshed when they come here and figure out that we don’t have an agenda.”

Many of the cases that are referred to Bench Mark are kids involved with selling drugs. Kiefer and his team know that being involved in the illegal drug trade is easy, and it’s lucrative for these kids. If Bench Mark doesn’t provide them with a viable alternative, those youth will not give Kiefer and his team the time of day. That’s why they move quickly to find jobs for these kids that keep them busy, safe and making money, so there is no reason to go back to selling drugs.

One of the most challenging aspects of Kiefer’s work is when he wears his hat as development director. As a nonprofit organization, Bench Mark essentially survived the first two years strictly off of private donations. Board members kicked in substantial funds, and then some corporate donors came on board. In year three, Kiefer now has all of the paperwork and documentation required to go back to foundations and other entities in order to create the funding that would make Bench Mark a sustainable business model — a model that Kiefer hopes to export to other communities.

He is working with the School District of Lancaster and the Lancaster Office of Juvenile Probation, and his vision has him expanding next to Columbia, and then to York County.

“I was ready to pull the plug on this so many times,” Kiefer added. “A year and a half later, the kids are saying, ‘this has changed my life’ and ‘you are the dads that I didn’t have.’ We really hope this can be a sustainable program, and we are closer to that happening than ever before.”


The Responsibility of Businesses in the Trump Economy

When young people move into adulthood and out of home for the first time, there is a predictable response to the lack of structure that had previously been provided by parents.

For the newly unhindered, that freedom is exhilarating — all-night parties, new clothes and dinners purchased on that first credit card as well as a choice about whether to attend class or not.

With the possibility of massive deregulation, the Donald Trump political era is likely to bring some profound changes to our political and economic system.

For the newly unregulated, that could mean a level of freedom — and peril — similar to the example of the college freshman.

Case in point, if the cabinet nominees of the president-elect are confirmed, we will have a labor secretary who is an ardent and vocal opponent to workers’ rights and a head of the Environmental Protection Agency who is strongly aligned with oil, gas and coal interests and vehemently opposed to regulatory oversight.

Whether you love these choices or hate them, there is no denying that there will be deep and long-lasting effects of the desired policies — or lack thereof — that are being proposed.

As a business community, we are being “pushed out of the nest,” whether we like it or not.

Herein lies the challenge: if the regulations go away, are we going to act like the 18-year-old in his/her first semester at college?

If the EPA ceases to exist or at least decreases its environmental regulations, will Lancaster’s farms and production facilities allow our air, waterways and forests to be irreparably damaged by choosing short-term profits at the expense of long-term environmental stability?

If workers’ rights are subverted, will local businesses use that opportunity to exploit employees, further exacerbating poverty and economic inequality in our community?

Are we going to overindulge, or are we going to consider the full, long-term impact of our actions and business decisions?

If we enter a new era of an unfettered business rights and limited regulation with a short-term mindset —similar to that college freshman — we could very likely lose much of what makes Lancaster such a desirable place to live.

Our natural places and our water sources could be negatively impacted, and our air quality could continue to decline.

We may see more Lancastrians dealing with the reality of living in poverty and economic distress, which tends to result in more crime, higher incarceration and associated costs, and decreased educational attainment, among other outcomes.

Importantly for the businesses themselves, we also will see a community in which potential customers have less expendable income to spend in local businesses.

Our call to Lancaster’s businesses is to be the responsible college freshman who attends every class, studies hard and considers the future impact of their decisions.

Let’s make a decision, here and now, to protect our air quality, our waterways and our forests from degradation.

Let’s treat our employees with the respect and decency that we would want to be treated with ourselves, including ensuring them a livable wage.

Let’s not make the dwindling government programs or nonprofit sectors clean up our messes.

Let’s keep the messes from happening in the first place by considering the social and environmental impact of the business decisions we make.

More than 40 studies from sources including the Economist, Harvard Business Review and Deloitte all say that higher corporate standards around environment, social and governance practices reduce the company’s financial risk and create greater profitability.

The Trump economy is here for the next few years, so regardless of mandates from Washington, D.C., let’s continue to show this community, and the world, the long-term view, ethics and responsibility for which Lancaster businesses are known.

Evidence shows that this will have a positive return on investment for both our businesses and the community.

Jonathan Coleman is director of programs for Assets, a Lancaster-based nonprofit that works to create economic opportunity and cultivate entrepreneurial leadership in order to alleviate poverty and build vibrant, sustainable communities.


Q&A: Luis Miranda is bringing fitness to southeast Lancaster

ASSETS client and participant in the third annual Great Social Enterprise Pitch, Luis Miranda of BootCamp900, is making news!

Luis A. Miranda Jr. talks about the BootCamp900 inside San Juan Bautista Center. (Blaine Shahan, LNP Staff Photographer)

If money was his only goal, Luis A. Miranda Jr. said, he wouldn’t have chosen southeast Lancaster city as the starting place for the fitness program he calls BootCamp900.

But the 31-year-old, who was born and raised here, saw a need and felt called to address it. Since 2012, the part-time business gained momentum.

This spring, at the urging of Fran Rodriguez — whose Latino Empowerment Project he graduated from — Miranda entered Lancaster’s third annual Great Social Enterprise Pitch and won second place.

He still has a day job at Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County, but hopes to expand BootCamp900 and hire its first employee in 2017.

How much did you win through the pitch?

I won $5,000 cash, was chosen as “crowd favorite,” and received $6,775 in pro-bono services (such as marketing and branding packages, legal services and accounting help). Also, during the crowdfunding phase of the pitch, I was able to raise over $6,000 from the Lancaster community.

Even more important, through this experience, the exposure I received and my growth as a person and a businessman, were huge. I do not think there can be a dollar figure attached to that!

What’s the most important thing you learned through the pitch program?

I learned that as a society we value profitability above everything else, but many times the biggest reward is serving others with our gifts and services, and profits simply follow. Socially responsible businesses flourish now more than ever as we seek greater meaning of life and our impact in a world that means more than money.

What does the name BootCamp900 mean?

BootCamp comes from the intensity of the training, very similar to a bootcamp. The 900 comes from the fact that if done correctly, the movements and intense training will help participants burn up to 900 calories within the hour.

Your pitch noted that you were in prison as a teen. Was it hard deciding whether to mention that?

The hardest part was determining whether that was going to create a stigma in the mind of the audience, wondering if people would automatically reject me and the venture.

That was an experience in my life that I cannot take back, and that I have learned from and have grown from tremendously.

I decided that regardless of how people reacted, I would prefer to be honest and live in the truth of who I am based on my experiences and life journey.

I would not let that experience define me any longer, but I will let it help others, therefore I had to mention it.

How did the pitch change your BootCamp900 strategy?

My original strategy was to focus on creating affordable access to health and wellness in the Southeast side of Lancaster City. I also hoped to help the youth that found themselves in the same position I found myself at the age of 17 by providing them a safe haven to learn life’s critical skills through a health and wellness platform.

As part of the pitch process, and the individuals that helped make this program successful, I was exposed to more opportunities for BootCamp900 to be an even greater social venture. I learned that you cannot do everything, but what you do choose to do, you must do well and with purpose.

My strategy grew from not just providing opportunities to one vulnerable population — youth — but now expanding the opportunity to previously incarcerated individuals.

What did you do before starting BootCamp900?

I worked at several jobs including a foundry, warehouses, etc. But I knew where my passion was all along, and that was health and wellness.

What’s the hardest decision you’ve faced with starting BootCamp900?

As an entrepreneur, the hardest thing is to believe in yourself when no one believes in you or your idea. That is the hardest decision; will I give this up now or push through this tough time?

Lancaster poverty report: cut rate in half, move 3,000 to good jobs over 15 years

A special commission that has spent the past year studying ways to help the poor in Lancaster has issued an ambitious, 15-year plan to lift at least half out of poverty and place 3,000 into good-paying jobs.

The Mayor’s Commission to Combat Poverty is also tapping a new, permanent coalition to lead the charge in halving the city’s poverty rate, which at 29 percent exceeds the rates for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, by 2032.

“Fifteen years and get rid of half of the poverty in Lancaster city? That’s a game change,” Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray said of the commission’s work. “I’m proud of what they did.”

Gray accepted the 87-page report, titled “One Good Job,” at a celebration Thursday night at Tec Centro as the 11-member volunteer panel completed its year-long assignment.

The commission spent $135,618, about half from the Lancaster County Community Foundation.

In its report, made public Thursday night, the commission is asking the newly created Lancaster Coalition to Combat Poverty to:

  • Move 3,000 heads of households to living-wage employment.
  • Make quality pre-kindergarten classes universally available in the city.
  • Help two-thirds of the workforce acquire a post-high school degree or certificate.
  • Create 60 units of affordable housing.
  • Help 100 city families become homeowners.
  • Hire 20 block captains.
  • Establish seven neighborhood groups.

The new coalition is asked to adopt nine strategies and 25 action items. It will oversee a sizable network that includes nonprofits, government and business leaders, and seven action teams, each working on a need such as housing, education or sustainable wages.

Also, a new nonprofit community development corporation will take on housing and workforce development initiatives.

“I think the level of relationship and trust that we’ve built has already changed the game,” said Dan Jurman, commission chair and CEO of the Community Action Partnership. “We’re not strangers to each other any more, and that means something when we start talking about the real work that we’re going to have to do together.”

Funding challenge

Although progress will take money, the report is vague about finances. It asserts that “results will yield funding.”

“The challenge out there is on (potential funders) to embrace the commission’s report and invest in it,” said Carlos Graupera, a commission member and CEO of the Southeast Lancaster-based Spanish American Civic Association. “We can’t be expecting hundreds of millions of dollars to go into the downtown core, and the issues of poverty are to be resolved by selling subs.”

The poverty commission chose not to ask city council or the county commissioners to create a poverty chief or similar position funded by and accountable to elected officials. The new coalition will be accountable to itself and its funders.

Collective impact

Lancaster city poverty by census tract

Chairing the new Coalition to Combat Poverty will be Jennifer Koppel. Koppel said she’ll perform the coalition’s duties in conjunction with her role as executive director of the Lancaster County Coalition to End Homelessness.

“We know that people who live in poverty are at a much higher risk of experiencing homelessness,” said Koppel, who joined the poverty commission midyear to fill a vacancy. “I don’t have an answer as to how much (of my time) it’s going to take. I can’t lose focus on the homeless coalition.”

The new poverty coalition will adopt “collective impact” as its way forward, modeling the approach of the homeless coalition and United Way-funded collaboratives. Collective impact holds that entrenched social problems are best tackled by diverse organizations pulling together toward a shared goal.

The commission says its goals are achievable if “we come together and create broad systems change in a way unprecedented in our community’s history.”

Agencies working together to attack poverty is not a new concept here. For about a decade at the turn of the millennium, five nonprofits formed The Inner City Group to revitalize the South Duke Street corridor, an effort that expired after achieving some headway.

“It was flawed in some areas, but it did some important things,” said Graupera, who headed one of the five cooperating agencies. “It gave us a lot of things to learn from.”

Helping individuals

The commission’s report offers comprehensive detail about how to help individual households overcome barriers to self-sufficiency. It says connecting the poor to living-wage employment “is at the core” of the commission’s recommendations.

The report is less concrete about how to break up the concentration of poverty in Lancaster neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of households live below federal poverty guidelines.

The report, for instance, does not advocate restructuring high-poverty schools or breaking up neighborhoods of public housing that cement hundreds of poor families in Lancaster’s Southeast.

The report, however, does contain a chapter, called “Our Apology,” that acknowledges the toxic consequences of racial segregation and 1960s-era urban renewal housing policies.

“We’ll need your help to push back against these philosophies and policies, and set the south side of the city back on a path toward prosperity,” the report says.

Jobs focus

Commission chair Jurman said the report is titled “One Good Job” for a reason.

“It’s about the difference that one good job makes, not just for the person’s income, but for the amount of time that they can spend with their family and the time that they can get engaged in the community,” Jurman said. “One good job clears up tons of symptoms of poverty that we no longer need nonprofits to artificially supplement.”

Drawing from an antipoverty initiative in Richmond, Virginia, the report recommends creating a workforce development agency that would be a more nimble and flexible alternative to the state-run CareerLink employment office.

The new initiative, for example, would hire “navigators” to work one-on-one with hard-to-hire workers, particularly single mothers, as they seek to overcome training, child care, transportation and other obstacles to employment. The Community Action Partnership already employs seven navigators.

Separately, the Community Action Partnership, working with the High companies and nonprofits, has assembled a crew of hard-to-hire workers into a construction/ landscaping team to work on projects in impoverished neighborhoods.

The workers get on-the-job training, earn living wages and receive social supports such as budgeting classes. Motivated team members can go on to better-paying positions with High or work with the nonprofit ASSETS to start a small business.

“They will earn enough to someday purchase the very homes they’re rehabilitating,” the report says.

Education initiatives include expanding the community school model to more city schools, strengthening after-school programs and aligning curriculum with workforce needs.

No silver bullet

poverty hearing
An audience listens during a poverty commission hearing in June at Bright Side Baptist Church in Lancaster. The commission held four hearings in 2016. JEFF HAWKES | Staff Writer

Tom Baldrige, a commission member and president of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry, said he entered the yearlong effort hoping for a unique, game-changing solution, but he learned the problem is too big for a silver bullet.

“What I think this report does is recognize the reality of the hard work and the broad level of engagement that’s going to be required to address the issue,” Baldrige said. “I think the report in that way is much more realistic and in the long term has much more impact.”

Graupera, who brought to the commission’s discussions decades of experience in trying to remake the inner city, said it will take all hands on deck to push the agenda forward.

“Regardless of what happened in the past,” he said, “we need to move forward with investment by schools, public officials, foundations, the private sector, and I think that’s where we need to position this effort.”

The Lancaster County Community Foundation contributed $65,000 to the commission’s work. Franklin & Marshall College gave $59,000 as part of its annual in-lieu-of-taxes payment. The city paid $11,681, said Patrick Hopkins, the city’s business administrator.