Leaders discuss equitable access, new exhibits in store for Presque Isle State Park visitors

Jeffrey Hileman, director of strategic communications at Erie Insurance, leads a panel discussion on equitable access at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania, hosted by Week Seven Presenting Sponsor Erie Insurance on Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. Dave Munch/Photo Editor

Henry Domst
design editor

Home to many lakes, ponds and bays, the sandy peninsula of Presque Isle State Park encompasses 3,200 acres along Lake Erie, serving as Pennsylvania’s only “seashore.”

With roughly 4 million visitors per year, the park is a natural oasis for travelers to and residents of Erie County alike. 

In recent years, leaders have worked on expanding the park in an effort to reach a wider audience and provide more equitable access for those with disabilities, as explained by a panel of officials who took the stage last Monday in the Hall of Philosophy, organized by Week Seven’s Presenting Sponsor Erie Insurance.

Jeffrey Hileman, director of Strategic Communications at Erie Insurance, led the discussion. Mathew Greene, park operations manager; Barbara C. Chaffee, president and CEO of the Tom Ridge Environmental Center Foundation; Kim Clear, Millcreek Supervisor; and Jon DeMarco, executive director of the Presque Isle Partnership, all spoke on their respective fields.

Greene said the support of nonprofit organizations allows the park to run at a more sophisticated level than if it relied on government funding alone.

“Presque Isle wouldn’t be what it is today without the public-facing side and support that it’s given through the Presque Isle Partnership, the Tom Ridge Environmental Center Foundation, and people being jazzed about Presque Isle State Park and wanting to give back,” Greene said. “(The nonprofits) push us off of what we provide in state parks, away from that standard level of service (to provide more).” 

Adamant about conserving the natural climate, Greene said he believes many places in the park should be left untouched, with no paths or bridges, so that visitors can experience the world as it is.

“Access to the park and many of its amenities are free — free is one door to equitable access,” Hileman said. “(Another) is transportation; it’s a barrier, unless there are walking trails, bike paths, or public transportation. Many of these access points are either in the early stages of being available or the planning stages.”

In one example, Clear explained Milford Township’s “Gateway to Presque Isle Plan.” 

“We knew that we had to work with the city of Erie to create a corridor between our bayfront and also our Presque Isle area,” Clear said.  

This spring, the township purchased nine acres of land at the foot of Presque Isle with the intention of eventually offering resources beyond the usual Lake Erie beach visit, including a bike path to Presque Isle. 

Additionally, Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority is planning to create trolley access from “the Bayfront Area all the way to Presque Isle, with stops along the way,” Clear said, creating a better sense of place at the state park. 

“Belonging to something special is something that is bigger than ourselves, something that people identify with,” she said.  

A former teacher, Clear remembers working with students who had never been to Presque Isle, despite living nearby. 

“It was because there was no access,” Clear said. “Equity doesn’t (always) have to do with physical adaptability, but also economic adaptability. How do we get our residents who do not have access to public transportation to explore Presque Isle? A lot of our low socioeconomic groups don’t have the means, nor the time.” 

With the creation of the corridor, doors will open to new visitors, she said.

Similarly, Chaffee said she is hopeful about bringing back the ferry that would transport people on Lake Erie, just as she remembered from her childhood when it cost just 25 cents to ride. 

In the meantime, renovations to the Tom Ridge Environmental Center exhibits are already underway to engage visitors from all backgrounds and age groups.

While the current exhibits are accurate, “they are not how people learn,” Chaffee said.

To reimagine static exhibits, officials at the center are partnering with Ideum, a creative design company. Displays will become dynamic, with software that allows them to be updated. 

“(The new exhibits) will include a dark room called ‘Night at Presque Isle,’ with projections of animals and birds,” Chaffee said, adding that other exhibits will include interactive elements in a stairwell, a weather station and one that focuses on the Great Lakes.

When comparing the center to similar ones, Chaffee said Presque Isle’s leaders understand that part of keeping it accessible means keeping entrance fees free.

“All of those museums charge admission,” she said. “We will never charge admission at this museum.” 

Prior to the pandemic, Presque Isle funded “all of the buses that moved students K-12 to onsite education, 26,000 students from schools,” Chaffee said. “… (When) we couldn’t bring them anymore, we provided funding for virtual cameras and other equipment so they could do virtual (tours).” 

DeMarco called the Presque Isle Partnership, established in 1994, a “conduit for community support,” hosting 30 different events for visitors in just the last eight weeks. The partnership’s recent projects have included: park amenities, historic preservation, education, conservation and public safety.

One newly added amenity is a Moby-Mat, which DeMarco described as “a 6-foot wide by 50-foot long recycled plastic woven rug that goes over the sand so it is wheelchair accessible.”

The park also has beach wheelchairs available for daily loans, which “make a visit to Presque Isle’s beaches and swimming (areas) accessible for those with all different abilities,” DeMarco said. 

Presque Isle Lighthouse serves as a recent success story, he said.

Previously a private residence for on-site rangers, the lighthouse was acquired and restored after organizers raised $200,000. Now, the landmark is open to the public.


The author Henry Domst

Henry Domst is a rising senior at SUNY Fredonia double-majoring in graphic design and art history with a minor in computer science. He is originally from Springville, New York, and currently works for his school newspaper, The Leader, as design editor. Already this summer he studied abroad in Florence, traveling all over Italy, experiencing new things, indulging in the cuisine and feeling inspired. When he’s not designing, you may see him biking. Henry is excited to meet everyone in Chautauqua, hoping to expand his network and make long lasting friendships.