Community First CEO Dan Betancourt on public art, historic preservation and economic justice

    “Five Questions with …” is a regular Keystone Crossroads feature where we seek to glean wisdom and ideas from some of Pennsylvania’s top urban thinkers and doers. Dan Betancourt is CEO of the Community First Foundation, with offices in York, Reading, Lancaster and Harrisburg. The organization has been working to achieve economic equality in Central Pennsylvania by investing in historic preservation, entrepreneurs and affordable housing for 22 years.

    Tell us about an amenity or service that you’ve seen in your travels to other places that you wish you could bring back to Central Pennsylvania.

    I would say the increased use of public art, as well as public and green spaces. This is a big concept in cities like Chicago, where you have things like The Cloud Gate/the Bean and The Navy Pier. I believe public art and green space is a great attraction to cities.

    What’s one urban improvement idea that you could categorize as “nice try but didn’t work”?

    A few years ago, cities embraced the idea of tearing down historic structures and replacing them with new, modern-age buildings. They called it “urban renewal”. I believe the act of tearing down parts of these historic buildings caused a loss in character. Older cities should preserve their historic assets for adaptive use, and look to maintain their colonial looks and streetscapes. This is something I think they have mastered particularly well in cities like Washington D.C. and Baltimore.

    Describe a person in your community who is a “spark.” Someone who seems to get things done and inspire people. (This does not need to be an elected official)

    I believe Sam Bressi, CEO of the Lancaster County Community Foundation, is a great “spark” in our community. Sam came to Lancaster from York, where he is well known and involved in local activities. Sam has completely transformed the way The Foundation engages with the Lancaster community. With the help of his main support staff at The Foundation, including Melody Keim, Sam has worked to engage individuals all over Lancaster County to work towards a better community for everyone. As a result of his guidance, discussions are being started all over Lancaster County, and the quality of business and life is improving.

    What flaw or habit does your city/community have that you would like to see it change?

    I think a stronger focus needs to be put on economic justice and economic opportunity for all individuals throughout the region. Initiatives need to be included in economic development plans to create wealth and income mobility for all individuals, including those of low to moderate income. Through our initiatives, we work to provide those economic opportunities to all individuals in our 13-county region in Central and Eastern PA.

    Tell us about a movie or book that depicts, in a way that grabbed your attention, how a city can thrive or fail.Bill Strickland’s book “Make the Impossible Possible” is a great read focused on the importance of neighborhoods and people working together toward upward mobility for all in small cities and beyond. The book also highlights the transformative nature of collaboration in cities like Pittsburgh. Strickland was our keynote speaker at Community First Fund’s annual Friends of the Fund event in 2013.

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