An aerial view of Erie's bayfront

'An all-hands-on-deck effort'

This year's ERIE conference connected the organizers of several economic revitalization efforts in the region. "The economy absolutely is changing," one said.

Erie’s economic recovery begins with a Post-it note.

“You put a big map on the wall, bring everyone into the room, and you begin a discussion,” said Kathy Wyrosdick, director of planning for the city of Erie. “You ask, ‘What do we have? What are our strengths? What do we need to do next?’

“As you talk, you put 100 Post-it notes on that map, each representing someone else’s project,” she said. “That gives people confidence. When you see all those Post-it notes, you know you aren’t out here working alone.”

This year’s ERIE conference, hosted by the Economic Research Institute of Erie, an applied research unit of Penn State Behrend’s Black School of Business, served the same function as that project map: It linked Wyrosdick and the leaders of other local economic initiatives for an in-depth, data-driven discussion of the region’s economic needs.

“This really is an all-hands-on-deck effort,” said John Persinger, CEO of the Erie Downtown Development Corp. “The cavalry is not coming to save us. The federal government is not going to bail us out. If we are going to turn the city around, we have to do it ourselves.”

Erie has lost 30 percent of its population since the 1960s. GE Transportation, which once employed 18,000 people in Erie County, will have fewer than 2,200 workers on-site by year’s end.

That makes Erie a “legacy” city, said Alison Goebel, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center. Her keynote address at the ERIE conference benchmarked the local economy against what is being done in Akron, Scranton, Dayton and Flint, among other cities.

“The economy absolutely is changing in these places,” she said, “and the magnitude of the challenges means that no sector can successfully address them alone.

“This is everyone’s problem,” she said. “That means it’s also everyone’s opportunity. We need people to say, ‘I can contribute this, or this.’ When that happens – when a community makes deliberate efforts to include everyone in the recovery – that’s when you really begin to see momentum and growth.”

An engaged civic base is essential, Goebel said. Erie’s elected leaders appear to get that: Mayor Joe Schember and County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper both spoke at the ERIE conference. So did state Sen. Dan Laughlin.

They and others at the conference discussed the region’s ongoing economic-revival programs, including Erie Refocused, a 10-year comprehensive plan for housing, transportation and land use; Emerge 2040, Erie County’s master plan; and the Erie Equity Fund, which has raised $25 million to purchase and improve downtown properties.

Using economic analysis by Ken Louie, director of the Economic Research Institute of Erie and an associate professor of economics at Penn State Behrend, and Val Vlad, assistant professor of economics at the college, they explored the challenges that remain: a housing surplus, a high number of tax-exempt downtown properties, and a decline in the labor force participation rate.

Wyrosdick, the city planning director, returned to the question of confidence.

“We have great buildings, great parks and a Bayfront that is second to none,” she said. “What we didn’t have, before this process started, was a unified vision. We have to believe that all these planning processes are working together.”

It won’t be a quick fix, Goebel said. Too many communities continue to struggle with these issues.

“There are so many cities that are still trying to figure this out,” she said. “The truth is, it’s going to be a long process. It took us a while to decline, and it’s going to take a while to dig ourselves out.”