Like many aging industrial cities, Erie, Pennsylvania, grapples with great challenges. Blight, poverty, deteriorating infrastructure and an eroding tax base are the opening lines of a litany of problems the city has in common with other once-vibrant urban centers in the Great Lakes region.
But something new and different is happening in Erie. The city’s mayor, Joe Schember, cast a vision when he took office in January 2018 that Erie would become a “community of choice.” While many challenges remain — and defy easy solutions — this city of about 100,000 residents has turned a corner in terms of hope, collaboration and entrepreneurial spirit. People are working together. They’re rewriting the narrative of decline.
At the center of these efforts are nonprofit ventures like the Erie Downtown Development Corporation, which was created in 2017 to revitalize a 12-block district in the city’s core, through real estate investments, business development and other improvements. Its participants — and investors in its $27.5 million development fund — include Gannon University, the Erie Community Foundation, regional banks, large health care nonprofits and other businesses.
Erie Insurance, Week Two program sponsor, is a founding partner of EDDC and an investor in additional efforts to spark revitalization in its hometown. These include the Erie Innovation District, which is building on the brainpower of local universities to grow and attract new high-tech businesses to the city’s downtown.
Erie Insurance CEO Tim NeCastro and Tom Hagen, the Fortune 500 company’s chairman of the board and longtime Chautauquan, are leaders in the city’s move toward unified action after decades of siloed and stalled efforts. NeCastro has been out front in driving the new spirit of collaboration. He serves as chairman of the EDDC and has devoted considerable effort to building a critical mass of investment and enthusiasm for turning the city’s trajectory upward.
“These are very exciting times in Erie, Pennsylvania,” NeCastro said. “A lot is happening. The EDDC, Erie Insurance and other companies, as well as the public sector and the community at large, are very actively involved in stimulating a revitalization of the Erie that we love.”
Investing in a city the company and its employees call home is a sound business decision. Erie Insurance has a growing workforce of 3,600 in Erie and a $135 million, 346,000-square-foot addition to its Home Office campus under construction.
“We have to look at ourselves as an essential component to this community, and as this community goes, so will we go,” NeCastro told employees during a 2018 panel discussion about the company’s efforts to revitalize its home city. “People who are talented want to live in a vibrant community with things to do and places to go.”
But there’s more than self-interest at work. The commitment by the company and its top leaders also represents a deep sense of civic responsibility.
Hagen told the same employee audience that the company is providing leadership at a critical time.
“It really would have been a dereliction of duty if we didn’t stand up,” he said.
A model approach
The EDDC is modeling its work after a successful, much larger effort in Cincinnati, Ohio’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation is a nonprofit whose work has been funded by large corporations headquartered in that city, including several in the Fortune 500. Over the last decade, the 3CDC has transformed an area once considered the most dangerous neighborhood in America.
The rejuvenated Over-the-Rhine has earned national attention with its trendy restaurants, in-demand residential and office space and attractive public gathering spaces. It’s a destination for locals and visitors alike, including frequent guests from Erie who have done more than just admire the results. They have studied the formula.
That formula includes the use of patient capital to fill funding gaps when the cost of buying and renovating declining properties exceeds the value of the finished product in the current market. It also encompasses tactics to nurture startup businesses and event planning to create a vibrant atmosphere.
Erie Insurance and other investors in the EDDC believe strongly that the approach is scalable to the smaller footprint they’ve staked out in Erie. In September 2018, the EDDC made its first property purchase, spending $2.95 million for eight parcels within its footprint. The next step forward was the announcement in May, of a more than $30 million plan to transform the properties into a culinary arts district with space for more than 20 businesses and as many as 87 apartments.
This project promises to be a major move forward for downtown Erie. There’s still much work to bring it to fruition, but excitement about the potential is spreading. It is even reverberating 23 miles away in Corry, Pennsylvania.
In that city of just over 6,300 residents, a group called Impact Corry recently recast itself to pursue a yet smaller-scale version of the Over-the-Rhine model. Formerly focused on projects like bringing a farmers market to town and leading beautification efforts, Impact Corry expanded both its board and its aspirations to include fighting blight and redeveloping properties. In June, the nonprofit added its first employee, a part-time community development director.
Sharing lessons learned
As part of the Week Two theme, “Uncommon Ground: Communities Working Toward Solutions,” Chautauquans will have an opportunity to learn more about the revitalization work in Erie and Corry through two programs. At 12:30 p.m. Wednesday in Smith Wilkes Hall, key players in the Erie effort, including Erie Insurance’s NeCastro, EDDC CEO John Persinger, Erie Mayor Joe Schember, Our West Bayfront’s Anna Frantz and New American representative Walaa Ahmed will participate in a panel discussion. A Corry panel will present at 12:30 p.m. Friday, July 5 in Smith Wilkes Hall.
Topics to be discussed include public and private partnerships, diversity and inclusion, the need for collaboration, the importance of neighborhood organizations and embracing the history of the city while being innovative for the future.
Both also will share how tired, self-defeating storylines are being replaced in their cities by new, upbeat narratives. Their stories are richly and authentically detailed, with themes of collaboration, civic pride and hope. Their casts of characters include captains of industry, elected officials, longtime residents, new Americans, entrepreneurial millennials and everyone else who’s been caught up in the growing spirit of optimism.
Those who have grown to love the Erie narrative include James Fallows, Week Two lecturer and author with his wife, Deborah, of Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America. In a 2017 Reporter’s Notebook column in The Atlantic, Fallows wrote:
“As we’ve been working away on our book based on our ‘American Futures’ travels over the past four years, my wife Deb and I have increasingly come to think of Erie, Pennsylvania, as the representative American city of this moment. … With particular sharpness in Erie, you see the shoulder-to-shoulder juxtaposition of two crucial realities in modern American life. One is the human pain, dislocation, and disruption caused by the overlapping forces of technological change and global competition. The other is the human ingenuity, passion, practicality and optimism involved in figuring out responses.”