Revitalization efforts In Erie and Corry, Pennsylvania, were discussed during “Communities Working Toward Solutions” panels and community conversations last week.
Erie Insurance was the program sponsor for Week Two, themed, “Uncommon Ground: Communities Working Toward Solutions.” This theme focused on communities coming together to solve societal issues and recognize the roles that communities play in making real change.
Speakers at the Erie panel last Wednesday were Tim NeCastro, CEO of Erie Insurance; Joe Schember, Erie mayor; Walaa Ahmad, assistant director of the office of educational equity and diversity programs at Penn State Behrend; John Persinger, CEO of Erie Downtown Development Corporation; and Anna Frantz, executive director of Our West Bayfront.
NeCastro opened by welcoming everyone and introducing all speakers on the panel.
“I want you to think about this in terms of being a journey,” NeCastro said, “a journey that the local City of Erie is taking on initiatives to try to improve.”
NeCastro said he wants people to focus on the topic of localism. He said the panelists learned early on that it takes the entire community and leaders within the city to help with revitalization efforts.
“That’s one of the remarkable things; how many different factions are working together to produce this recovery,” NeCastro said.
He then turned the microphone over to Schember.
Schember was born and raised in Erie and has lived there most of his life. Throughout his life, he said he saw the decline within the city and knew something needed to be done.
He said a population decrease had happened over time. Schember continued to live in Erie and worked one of his first jobs there. He said that after the population began to decline, jobs started to go away.
“After 40 years, I decided I’m at a point in my life where I want to give back to the community,” Schember said.
He said he wanted to improve Erie for future generations, so Schember gave up his previous profession to do just that — and his term as Erie mayor began in 2018. He enjoys his mayoral responsibilities, as they allow him to help rebuild the Erie community.
“There’s great people here in Erie,” Schember said. “People in Erie are working together like never before.”
Persinger spoke next — he discussed how close-knit the community leaders have to be in order to better the community.
“What I think is interesting about this panel and about what we’re trying to achieve in Erie is that we have to work together because that’s what really matters,” Persinger said.
Schember and Persinger are neighbors. Persinger, who has experience in government, said that sometimes government officials don’t have to work closely together or even see each other, necessarily. But he and Schember see each other quite frequently, especially when cutting the grass. Persinger emphasized the importance of working together as a team and seeing Schember regularly to continue their community improvement efforts.
“I need him to be successful and he needs us to be successful,” Persinger said. “We’re all working together.”
The EDDC, of which Persinger is CEO, focuses on blighted, unutilized, vacant properties in the core of downtown Erie.
“The downtown core has a lot of buildings that have seen better days,” Persinger said. “The real estate market is quite soft and it hasn’t been acknowledged; it hasn’t made sense for the owners of the buildings to invest in those buildings because when they invest, they don’t get the same value that they put in.”
Persinger said he learned they needed private investments and that community leaders had to step up and contribute. In a combined effort among Erie Insurance, Allegheny Health Network, Gannon University and other companies and area organizations, $27.5 million has been raised to revitalize the downtown area.
After receiving housing assistance from an agency in Erie, Ahmad was encouraged to get involved with the community and give back as well. She has worked with the Urban Erie Development Corporation where she worked closely with students, immigrants and refugees.
“Now it’s time for us to give back to our community,” Ahmad said. “We are giving back to other Americans in the community by helping them go to school, by tutoring and mentoring them and this is some of the work that we do in my department.”
Ahmad said their goal is to promote diversity and respect, so the office of educational equity and diversity programs hosts diversity training and workshops in classrooms. The students in the community volunteer, giving them a great way to network with other community members. Overall, the students are engaging with the community to make Erie a better place, according to Ahmad.
“Many of them graduate from Penn State and they’re staying local,” Ahmad said. “They’re working at nonprofit organizations and local companies in Erie, Pennsylvania, and are furthering their education.”
Frantz was next to speak during the panel. She described what Our West Bayfront is and how it is helping to revitalize Erie.
“(Our West Bayfront) is a conglomeration of multiple neighborhoods; about 13,000 residents live adjacent to downtown,” Frantz said. “We’ve got an incredible socioeconomic diversity, as well as diversity in terms of the environment.”
Frantz said that due to limited resources at the municipal level for many years, there hasn’t been a lot of investment and strategy put into the bayfront, despite its critical role in the city.
“So again, working with others, a nonprofit housing development organization and many residents came together and said, ‘How can we do this better? How can we come together as community members?’ ” Frantz said.
Thus, Our West Bayfront was created and launched in 2014. Frantz said Our West Bayfront guides decision-making and lays out plans for revitalizing West Bayfront neighborhoods. It’s a physical plan but also a plan in terms of how they use community resources
The second panel discussion last Friday focused on revitalization efforts in Corry. Panel speakers were Joe Nickol, principal and director of design and development at Yard and Company; Brad Allen, partner at Rossbacher Insurance Group; Bill Nichols, chairman of Corry Community Foundation; and Chuck Gray, community development director of Impact Corry.
The discussion focused on how to also revitalize the small Pennsylvania town. Nickol was first to speak and discussed how changes in Corry are affecting the community.
“Small towns are sitting at an important point,” Nickol said. “A lot of changes are happening to our demographics, to our economies.”
Nickol said as these changes start to happen, there’s a point where they have to ask themselves, “What is going to come next?”
Corry representatives and leaders include Corry natives and longtime residents, as well as newcomers.
The next speaker was Nichols, a lifelong Corry resident and former superintendent of Corry Area School District.
“We have strong, primarily family-owned businesses,” Nichols said.
He said Corry has a strong industrial base and people are committed to the hometown feel of a small community. This makes it easier for community members to come together and work toward goals that have been set for Corry.
Allen is not from Corry and first moved to Pennsylvania in 1999, when he began working at Erie Insurance.
“Our biggest employer (in Corry) closed in 2007, and it had 400 jobs,” Allen said. “So those workers moved out, and we were left with this supply of housing that was built in the ’50s and ’60s, and now we have this overabundance of housing.”
He became part of the Corry Neighborhood Initiative in 2004. Corry leaders realized that certain local efforts were not being made to help the community grow.
“We worked to get a new city council elected and a new city manager,” Allen said.
The new city leaders were able to meet certain criteria and building compliances, as well as complete measures to help with the housing issues.
Lastly, Gray spoke about the process of recently being named the new community development director at Impact Corry. She has a background in community development and said she is pleased to have been selected for the position.
“I was asked to share how I found Corry, or how Corry found me,” Gray said.
A friend had called Gray and told her that she must look at an advertisement for a job in Corry. Though she wasn’t initially interested, Gray decided to take a look.
“This ad was amazing,” Gray said. “It was thoughtful, it was concise, it gave the backstory, it gave the expectation and it gave you a sense of the characters.”
Gray said she thought about the position and how it involved working to improve the community. She applied, and the interview process included a variety of tests.
She went through multiple phone interviews and was asked questions about her plans for the position. Gray ended up receiving the job and believes she is ready for everything she signed up for.
“I really felt that if I was what they were looking for, I would get the job,” Gray said. “And now I consider myself the luckiest human.”