Sprawl and Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Is it too late for the Amish epicenter?
By James H. Schwartz | Online Only | November/December 2008
Lancaster County, Pa.
Category: Worst-Rated Destinations
Mention Lancaster County, Pa., to most Americans and they think verdant fields and Amish farmers, both of which have attracted tourists to this area 60 miles west of Philadelphia for decades. Some come to see the collection of wonderfully preserved 18th-century houses, in the city of Lancaster and outlying villages, and still more travel here to learn about timeless Amish traditions. But things have changed—even in Lancaster.
"This is a rural county experiencing tremendous sprawl," says David Schuyler, professor of American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, and a Lancaster city resident. "There's significant suburban development, an exploding population of commuters traveling to Philadelphia and Baltimore each day, and increased pressures between homeowners and Amish farmers."
Survey panelists echoed Schuyler's comments, and expressed regret that the changes are detrimental to the area's authenticity. "Every time I visit here, I feel the cultural integrity is constantly compromised," one wrote. Another applauded the county's impressive track record of saving open space and farmland, but noted that "The Amish are lost amidst the sprawl and schlock." Perhaps the saddest commentary came from a panelist who claimed "40 years of familiarity with this destination" and went on to attest "that it is now a congested and confusing place … Housing and commercial development have transformed the destination."
Robin Sarratt-Cohen, vice president of the Lancaster County Historical Society, moved to the area from Delaware last summer. She applauds the active arts and culture in Lancaster, and describes local interest in county history as "rising." Unfortunately, retailers trying to capitalize on that history continue to chip away at the area's unique character, especially by misappropriating the Amish "look." Is there really anything historical about a new outlet center—even one built around three (fake) silos?
There have been successes that protect the multimillion-dollar tourism industry here. The Lancaster Farmland Trust has preserved nearly 14,000 acres of prime farmland, and the county's Agricultural Preserve Board has preserved more than 45,000 acres. "They've saved quite a number of farms so they can't be developed," says research librarian Philip Crnkovich, a lifelong resident. "But there's a constant balancing act of preservation efforts vs. growth … A lot of people who have retired after us visiting as tourists like the farmland but don't want the unpleasantness of living next to a farm."
With the new Lancaster County Convention Center slated to open in the spring of 2009, local planners expect still more changes—and visitors. One survey respondent acknowledged that it is "a bit late" to stem the development tide transforming the historic heart of the county, but aggressive planning "may save some of the more remote, less well known areas."
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