26 July 2010

Building One PA signals start of movement

On a hot Friday a couple of weeks ago, at a college campus named for a man who won a legislative victory to protect educational opportunity for all Pennsylvanians, a movement began.

More than 650 people from all corners of Pennsylvania convened July 16 in Lancaster, at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, for the first Building One Pennsylvania Conference. It was a diverse group: white, black, Latino, business, labor, the faith community, members of school boards and municipal boards. They came from the southwest corner of the state and from the northeast, from Pottstown to Penn Hills.

They heard speakers and panel discussions make the argument that some have been making for years: that older communities in Pennsylvania - our urban centers, first-ring suburbs and boroughs - have been hollowed out by decades of state and federal policies that have favored new development and subsidized sprawl at the expense of these established core communities.

What was new at this event was that the discussion was happening within the context of a new organizing structure, one linked to various civic and business groups in regions across the state that have come together to advocate on common issues. The convening partners for the event included Good Schools Pennsylvania, 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, the Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches and YorkCounts.

These groups and the hundreds of other organizations that sent representatives agree on a couple of basic ideas. Crumbling infrastructure isn’t just a problem in one older city, borough or first-ring suburb; it’s happening in older communities and now even many suburban townships across the state. Struggling school districts, overwhelmed by the twin challenges of poverty and a declining tax base, aren’t just a problem in Norristown, York or Wilkinsburg; they exist in scores of communities across the state.

The people in attendance realized they have strength in numbers. In Allegheny County, for example, one speaker noted the significance of the shared problems faced by Pittsburgh and its 35 inner-ring neighbors. A lot of people live there and have jobs there. A number of legislators represent that area. Multiply that for various regions across the state, and there is one clear conclusion: These linked groups represent a growing political force.

And it appears that political leadership from both parties is paying attention. State Sen. Ted Erickson (R-Delaware and Chester counties), chairman of the Senate Majority Policy Committee, expressed his support for the coalition’s efforts to address these important issues. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster County), indicated he, too, was willing to help advance a policy agenda that would reverse the decline experienced by so many municipalities and school districts across Pennsylvania over the past half century.

The work that has been done to date to build this statewide coalition is energizing, and the initial reaction from some of our key legislative leaders is encouraging. In the end, though, success will be measured by the coalition’s ability to bring about policy changes in Harrisburg that will benefit all communities within our great Commonwealth. I hope that more people will join together in this effort to bring a better day in Pennsylvania.

- Dan Fink

01 July 2010

Column makes case for Building One PA

There's about two weeks left before Building One Pennsylvania, and the media mentions are starting to build. The lastest is a spot-on column from Lancaster Online. Jeff Hawkes does a good job of capturing the thinking behind the diverse mix of organizations from across the state coming together around a couple of key issues.

He starts out trying to explain why Lancaster - and, by extension, York and Harrisburg and cities across the state - are struggling.

"The issue has nothing to do with whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge and everything to do with long-standing, deep-rooted state and federal policies that favor new roads and development outside cities and towns and discourage annexation and regional approaches that give older communities a fighting chance.

With cities and towns in every corner of Pennsylvania hurting because of policies beyond their control, they and their advocates are seeing the need to come together and explore a common agenda of solutions."
So how do groups like YorkCounts and Good Schools Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Council of Churches find common ground?
"The conveners of the summit include 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, Southeastern Pennsylvania First Suburbs Project and YorkCounts — organizations that focus on rational land-use policies and effective municipal governance.

But the scope of regional equity also encompasses the missions of organizations such as Pennsylvania Council of Churches and Good Schools Pennsylvania, both of which are also conveners of the summit.

'How Pennsylvania funded education has not only failed students but contributed to the blighting of communities and sprawl,' said Good Schools' Janis Risch in explaining her organization's interest in the summit.

If the summit is successful, said Marilyn Wood of 10,000 Friends, then advocates of various causes — public education, affordable housing, transit, the environment — will see how they all win if they join forces to reverse the decline of urban Pennsylvania."
That's really the bottom line here: Giving people a place to come together and exert some influence over public policy that has too long shoved older communities to the side.

Do you want to see municipal budgets continue to be strained and school taxes continue to go up? Or do you want to add your voice to the call for changing a broken system? Building One Pennsylvania is July 16 at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster. Go here to register. Do it today.

- Dan Fink