Empower Erie News & Updates

Year in Review: Where does Erie go next?

Posted on December 30th, 2016 at 5:03 PM

Year in Review: Where does Erie go next?

This article was originally posted in the Erie Times-News on December 30, 2016.

When we launched our Erie Next initiative at the beginning of the year, we pledged "to focus squarely on what Erie and the region need to address our problems, capitalize on our strengths, seize our opportunities and build a better future for us all."

We've worked to do just that throughout the year via news coverage, commentary, advocacy and community events. There's been a lot to focus on, in the form of both promising steps forward and shortcomings in leadership and vision that so often have held Erie back.

As our community prepares for a pivotal 2017, including the election of a new mayor, here's a look back at 2016 through the lens of Erie Next.

Betting on Erie: Major players in the community stepped forward this year with commitments to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Erie's urban core.

Those projects, which dovetail with the city of Erie's new comprehensive plan and the Erie Downtown Master Plan, also unveiled this year, include:

  • A $135 million, seven-story building to be built by Erie Insurance Group across East Sixth Street from its headquarters. It's expected to coincide with the creation of up to 1,000 new jobs.
  • A $111 million addition to UPMC Hamot's main hospital complex.
  • The first phase of Scott Enterprises' planned $150 million Harbor Place development on 12 acres on Erie's east bayfront. That project was seeded in October with a $5 million grant from the state.
  • Velocity Network's plans to buy and upgrade the Rothrock Building on West 10th Street along with surrounding properties, with a total investment of up to $8 million, and make it the headquarters of the homegrown high-tech company.

The city's elected and civic leaders should seek every avenue possible to leverage these investments to further transform the heart of Erie.

Planning ahead: At the end of March, urban planner Charles Buki and his Virginia-based firm, CVB, delivered Erie Refocused, the city of Erie's sweeping, ambitious comprehensive plan. It came with a warning from Buki: Half-measures will fail and Erie is running out of time.

The plan amounts to tough love for a declining city. It prescribes hard choices, bold action, massive investments and extensive community engagement. In the months since, the plan has generated broad community enthusiasm and commitment that have been undercut by a sluggish rollout and response from Mayor Joe Sinnott and Erie City Council.

The 2017 mayoral and council elections should focus on how to turn Erie Refocused into disciplined and sustained action, but what Erie's up against can't wait for those votes. Erie's business and civic leaders must demand that the mayor emerge from his office and council members from their dais to belatedly engage Erie's residents and transparently set the plan in motion on a variety of fronts.

Saving our schools: Erie schools Superintendent Jay Badams provided aggressive, focused leadership in forcing the action on the Erie School District's plunge toward insolvency as a result of the state's dysfunctional and unfair system for funding public schools.

This year ends with Harrisburg considering the district's mandated financial recovery plan, which seeks a major infusion in annual state funding, and with a weary, frustrated Badams thinking about leaving Erie for a new job. Erie must continue to forcefully make its case in any event, but losing Badams' leadership would hurt. A lot.

Wither GE? While December brought welcome signs of constructive dialogue between GE Transportation and the union representing workers at its Lawrence Park locomotive plant, 2016 ends amid major uncertainty about GE's place in Erie.

The year started with GE laying off 1,500 workers in Lawrence Park — about a third of the workforce — and continued with Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America refusing concessions in pay and work rules in exchange for reinvestment in the plant.

Since GE started production in 2012 at a second, nonunion locomotive plant in Fort Worth, Texas, the company has enhanced its leverage and options. Long Erie County's biggest employer, GE's future in Erie is hardly a given.

State and local leaders should work to maintain a dialogue with GE officials about that future. But the community should also plan for contingencies.

Gone under: DevelopErie, Erie County's lead economic development group, tried to recover from the collapse of its Erie Inland Port project and the accompanying financial fallout. It didn't work.

In April, the Greater Erie Industrial Development Corp., DevelopErie's core affiliate, filed for bankruptcy liquidation. That has left the region's economic development apparatus in disarray and local officials deliberating about how best to move forward.

The next steps in that arena should be among the issues debated in the 2017 elections, especially the race for Erie County executive.

Turf over vision: One of the most contentious political dust-ups of 2016 centered on the future of the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority as the expiration of its original 50-year charter neared in September. It wasn't pretty.

Maneuvering over EMTA's future turned into a damaging and dispiriting turf war between the city of Erie and Erie County, EMTA's founding sponsors. Each side shares some culpability, but Sinnott and City Council members shoulder the bulk of it for their intransigence and bad faith.

A compromise was finally reached in the face of the state's takeover threat, and bus service was never interrupted. But the flap stands as a warning that Erie and the region can't afford such siloed, backward-looking leadership if we're to turn this community's fortunes around.

Working together for the greater good across political boundaries should also be front and center in the coming elections. We're all in it together.

Fighting crime: Among the strategies of Unified Erie, Erie County's anti-violence initiative, is to tend both ends of the prison pipeline — trying to divert at-risk young people from starting a life of crime and assisting offenders returning from prison in leaving that life behind.

The United Way of Erie County and the Erie Community Foundation in July collaborated on a $1.2 million grant that will fund those efforts over three years. The money will pay for "call-ins," which essentially are interventions for people known to move in circles marked by crime and violence, and a program to provide coordinated services to help prisoners returning home to build productive lives.

As promising as those efforts are, the debate over Unified Erie's plans — call-ins in particular — illustrated that many in Erie's minority community are deeply distrustful of the justice system and how it treats minorities. That demands an open and ongoing dialogue in the year ahead.

Seeding change: Erie's philanthropic sector has taken major steps in recent years to target available resources at the region's critical needs, with an emphasis on evidence-based strategies and measurable results.

Three key players built on that record in October in awarding four Shaping Tomorrow grants aimed at moving the needle in meeting those needs. The grants were awarded by the Erie Community Foundation, the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority and the Susan Hirt Hagen Fund for Transformational Philanthropy.

They awarded $4 million to Mercyhurst University for the Downtown Erie Innovation District, which will focus on cyber security and data science and also involve Erie Insurance, Velocity Network and McManis & Monsalve Associates; up to $4 million for Empower Erie for a new effort toward establishing an Erie County community college; $1.5 million to the Erie School District for its "community schools" project, which focuses on bringing social and support services into inner-city schools; and $500,000 to Gannon University for improvements in Erie's bayfront neighborhoods.

The community will now be watching for tangible results from those investments. Erie needs successes to build upon.

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