Quarterly Report: Is Erie Moving Forward?

October 7th, 2018, 12:00 AM

An article from GoErie.com

A look back at the progress and obstacles of the third quarter.

Thanks to Erie Mayor Joe Schember's administration and Mercyhurst University, fireworks lit up the city of Erie's skyline for the first time in three years this Fourth of July. That display was not the only thing sparking hope. Here's a rundown on some key developments in this encouraging quarter:

Mayor Joe Schember

Schember's administration marshaled business, political and civic leaders, including Erie County and the Erie Downtown Development Corp., to develop a prospectus to attract investment in Erie's newly designated Opportunity Zones.

The city launched the website, www.flagshipopportunityzone.com, in August. Opportunity Zones, created by the federal Tax Cuts and Job Act, seek to jump-start investment in low-income areas. The city estimates $600 million could be invested.

A new small business grant program, the Flagship Fund, created by Schember's administration, made its first round of awards, $4,000 each to five small businesses, which were required to provide matching funds. Recipients included a video game creator and a custom millwork fabricator.

Schember continued to make good on his campaign pledge to involve Erie residents in the Erie Refocused comprehensive plan with his Summer of Hope tour. Schember, Planner Director Kathy Wyrosdick and others fanned out across Erie's east side to talk face-to-face with residents about the plan and their ideas for Erie.

Schember's commitment to diversity showed amid a renewed and refreshed CelebrateErie, which included a Multicultural Marketplace showcasing Erie's immigrant and refugee communities, and a town hall for Erie's Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

The city finally, after years of planning, put in place new downtown parking technology that allows users to pay at a kiosk or via a cellphone app, meterEZ, developed by local entrepreneurs. The city's popular large item trash collection event, once held only in the spring, is now available year-round.

The administration's momentum hit its first major hurdle in August when the mayor and Erie City Council learned of a $1 million budget shortfall caused by what Finance Director Paul Lichtenwalter termed a miscalculation in sewer revenues.

More recently, Schember's and Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper's efforts to remake the fractious, troubled Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority board have been met with resistance by Erie County Council and Erie City Council, creating uncertainty about the board's future.

Economic development

The Erie region's economic development momentum faltered in 2016 when the lead economic development agency, DevelopErie, collapsed into bankruptcy amid the failed Erie Inland Port plan. Dahlkemper convened a core group of stakeholders to reimagine the region's economic development infrastructure. A new strategy is starting to gel.

The new CEO at the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, James. W. Grunke, whose hiring was announced in August, is expected to be in charge of regional economic development efforts, aided by a new Erie County Data Center housed in the newly reorganized Erie County Department of Planning and Community Development.

The data center, backed by the county, the Regional Chamber, the Emerge 2040 steering committee and the Erie County Redevelopment Authority, will give business owners, entrepreneurs and investors instant access to a wealth of information about the region.

City of Erie and Millcreek Township officials joined for economic development training in September at City Hall as part of an ongoing effort to partner Erie and Millcreek to pursue joint economic development initiatives.

Rick Novotny, Erie County Redevelopment Authority executive director, and others continue to stress the need for vacant, development-ready land and move in-ready industrial buildings.

Erie Innovation District

This initiative led by Mercyhurst University aims to combine local academic expertise and entrepreneurs to create a community of companies centered on cyber security and data.

With a CEO — Karl Sanchack — hired and an office opened at 717 State St., the Erie Innovation District began taking tangible shape in the summer with a "smart city" makeover of downtown Erie. New LED lighting, video surveillance cameras, and free Wi-Fi were installed in a project overseen by Quantela, a global data analytics company. A 10-week boot camp for nine tech-focused startups followed. Five of the nine have chosen to locate in Erie.

In addition, Quantela has agreed to oversee a consortium that plans to invest $5 million to $7 million in private funds to expand Erie's Secure Smart City program.

Erie Downtown Development Corp.

The EDDC continued to garner new investments, bringing the most recent tally to more than $27 million raised to transform a 12-block section of Erie's downtown from Perry Square north to Third Street and Sassafras Street east to Holland Street.

The EDDC established a headquarters in the 179-year-old Cashier's House, 417 State St., and brought experts with the Urban Land Institute to Erie in midsummer. They pored over the EDDC footprint and created a block-by-block land use plan, recommending a mix of commercial and residential spaces and more attractive parking lots.

They stressed the need for close collaboration between government and developers and clear communication with the public. They urged City Hall to expand its planning department and function at its highest level of creativity, focus and accountability to ensure all sources of funding are leveraged and unnecessary bureaucratic roadblocks avoided.

A month later, the EDDC made its first big purchase, $2.95 million for eight parcels in the heart of downtown, including the former iconic music venue, Sherlock's/Park Place. The properties front State Street and face Perry Square along North Park Row.

CEO John Persinger said the EDDC will continue to look at more property as it develops these with first-floor commercial ventures and residential units above. The EDDC also hosted two events to attract downtown visitors.

Investing in Erie

Pete Zaphiris, owner of Erie-based Great Lake Insurance Services Group, has purchased multiple parcels in the area of West 12th and Peach and State streets, including the Citizens Bank building and former Erie General Tire property, and plans to announce soon a new development featuring retail, residential and office space.

Gov. Tom Wolf visited in August to announce critical Redevelopment Assistant Capital Program awards: $12 million for upgrades at UPMC Park, which, Erie Events Executive Director Casey Wells said, helped secure a commitment for both the Erie SeaWolves and the Erie Otters to remain in Erie for at least 10 years.

The Avalon Hotel was awarded $1 million toward a $16 million project to transform the hotel into a Hilton DoubleTree Hotel with a pool, penthouse suites and new shops.

An earlier RACP investment of $3 million in 2016 paid off, as the new ErieBank Sports Park, featuring two badly needed new ice rinks, opened in September. Wolf's administration also awarded $2 million in July to help bring the broken-down JMC Ice Arena back online.

Residents donated a record-breaking $4.45 million to support local nonprofits in the Erie Community Foundation's annual Erie Gives day on Aug. 14.

In the neighborhoods

ServErie mustered thousands of volunteers over four days in August to improve Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School and the Booker T. Washington Center on Erie's east side.

Neighborhood groups Our West Bayfront and Bayfront East Side Taskforce deployed volunteers from the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps to advance their ongoing work to spruce up neglected neighborhoods.

Grants focused on neighborhood marquee buildings and facades from the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority boosted the work of organizations on both sides of town: $100,000 for the renovation of the former Howard's Photography, 404-406 W. Eighth St.; $100,000 each to Emmaus Ministries and Grace Church; $58,000 to ServErie; and $50,000 to B.E.S.T. Our West Bayfront in September also received a $150,000 state grant to revamp Bayview Park.

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