The Art and Science of Erie's Transformation

July 25th, 2018, 12:00 AM

This article is from the Erie Times-News.

Court Gould leads impact efforts at the Erie Community Foundation.

Court Gould, 57, is the new vice president of community impact at the Erie Community Foundation, which stewards 789 charitable endowments valued at approximately $259 million. Gould, the founder and former executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, and his wife, Sherri, have purchased a home in Erie's west bayfront neighborhood. Gould met with Erie Times-News writer Lisa Thompson to discuss his new role and his perceptions of Erie. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear a longer version visit

What brought you to Erie?

I grew up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and spent my career working downtown. My wife and I became empty-nesters about a year ago. We continue to be highly privileged to be in a position to be able to think about our future and where we would like to be contributing. There are many eyes on Erie, as everyone ... is throwing everything they can at its assured resurgence. (That) captivated my attention and the more I studied and talked to people about what's going on in Erie, the more I became convinced that this is the place for us to be ... and try and make a difference and apply what I've learned and been doing in Pittsburgh.

How does your new post relate to your work at Sustainable Pittsburgh?

I founded Sustainable Pittsburgh 20 years ago and our definition of sustainability is how things work together with an eye over the horizon and a very tuned ear to trends, opportunities and where pitfalls may lie. The Erie Community Foundation's data project, Erie Vital Signs, actually is something that we did in Pittsburgh. It's a strategy to redefine true progress through data-based information about the most pressing trends, opportunities and challenges in the community. So Erie Vital Signs is right on target by deliberately tracking the wide continuum of social, economic and environmental issues across seven different categories. My work in Pittsburgh — we were no more focused on the environment than we were on the intersection between economy, social equity and quality of life, environmental issues, and our philanthropies, be they private or community, such as the Erie Community Foundation. (Both jobs involve) the work of sustainable development — that is focusing on ensuring the creation of abundance, defined by quality of life, jobs, public health, equitable education, progress and creating a better life for everyone.

The other (thing that drew me to the job) was looking at the role that the Erie Community Foundation and its president Mike Batchelor have played in the community. It is a remarkable organization that serves the dual purpose of being the point of expression of the will of the public through their philanthropic generosity, while also working with the community to identify the needs and opportunities and the places where support, in terms of resources and research, can be located. Erie is also very fortunate to have ... a remarkable shared wherewithal among the sectors. Everybody is coming together to apply the best of strategies.

Were you aware of that when you applied for the job?

Yes, the Erie story is getting out and, actually, in the short month and a half I have been here, there have been a remarkable number of leaders from surrounding cities, Pittsburgh included, who have been here for either work or investment or to be tapped for their ideas. So Erie's innovations, its intent to be a leader and to assure footing for everybody — the story is getting out and it's a place people want to be.

How might we go off track?

There are always pitfalls when one is committed to transformational change. This is both an art and a science. The Erie Community Foundation, under Mike Batchelor's leadership, takes some risks, but they are always well-informed and relate back to the experience, the expertise and the aspirations of the community. I would say across the world, in America and locally as well, we know that some attempts that were formulated at a given time were well-intended, but in hindsight, we would do things differently. For example, the term "urban renewal," which in hindsight was an ill-fated attempt across the country to eradicate blight and create opportunity. We now see that we were disrupting whole neighborhoods and eliminating some of the very heart and soul of our communities that now we're working overtime to get back.

Erie has made some big plays (in that regard) that the Erie Community Foundation has their investment in, such as the Innovation District and the Erie Downtown Development Corporation, and the hope for a community college, the focus on our neighborhoods to revitalize our communities, to create places that are safe for walking, have good retail in our commercial areas at the ground floor and living opportunities above. This is the new definition of prosperity. What's old is new again and that's creating opportunity.

Are we missing anything?

If we are, I think we're in good position to learn about it. Erie has invited the national Urban Land Institute to come to Erie. A crack team of seasoned professionals from all around the country (will) come in and literally walk the streets and climb the stairs and understand our town and provide input, take it or leave it, as to what's missing, what could be done, what has worked elsewhere.

For all the momentum in some sectors, many here fail to see cause for hope.

Of course, Erie is full of really hard-working families that are having a hard time, but there is a grit and a determination and a closeness here. I see from the halls of government and the way the private sector and the nonprofits are really rallying today that there's an attitude in the air that if it's not for everyone, it's not for us. The tune of equitable development is the new imperative, the new definition of true progress, as literally the face of America changes and Erie has a diversity and richness of its population that is the bedrock of our hopes for economic renewal and revival where no one person is left behind. Diversity, equity, inclusion, these are the critical paths to economic resurgence and we are a community of a very strong philanthropic purpose.

I noticed the Vital Signs have now added new categories relating to equity and pretty bluntly states what the history of those problems in Erie are. Are the strategies in place adequate to address those really deplorable indicators in the Vital Signs?

Under Mike Batchelor's leadership, the Erie Vital Signs of the Erie Community Foundation is demonstrating it's responsibility and accountability by having a suite of social equity indicators across every indicator as a sober assessment of both the pros and the challenges essential to a community foundation's ability to be data-informed and focused on making the most judicious investments possible. There are some bright lines in the equity area. So, for example, it's happy, good news that the number of our youth who are receiving education at the earliest ages is well on the rise and above national levels. However, we know at the same time, Erie, and many cities like us, are plagued by a systemic poverty that has accumulated over generations. And it's unfortunately not going to be fixed overnight as there's not enough money to do it all at once, but rather will take many strategies from, as you mentioned, diversifying the workforce for companies at even a faster rate, understanding that it ... is essential for their growth.

The number of children who live in poverty is particularly hard to accept in Erie. But again, there's so much being done. The Erie Community Foundation has recently made a suite of major investments from helping to reduce truancy to providing access to nutritious food in our downtown and to try and grow literally an ecosystem of residents that are growing food for both their own nutrition needs, but making it available to their neighbors. Focusing on pathways to jobs and progress. Remarkable organizations that are working closely with the business sector to provide basic soft and hard skills to our youth and giving them a chance in the halls and the shop floors in downtown Erie. So there is a remarkable amount of innovation, investment and wherewithal being thrown at these issues. I don't think there's a blind eye being turned to them, but rather a sober assessment that these now are essential to our economic resurgence.

What does your day-to-day work look like?

I work closely with the doers in our community, the nonprofits, our government leaders, our business leaders to understand their needs, what is working to, as I said, connect them to others to try and further expedite the uptake of smart solutions-making. And relative to that, the team of which I'm happy to be part, is charged with assessing the impact, the outcomes of a grant-making.

Those outcomes are the tricky thing. So many people have been working on those terrible poverty statistics for so long, but the numbers aren't moving.

(That) is the challenge and the responsibility of philanthropy and assessing impact. We're looking to see the needle moved on the big numbers for everybody and that is a commitment and a responsibility. At the same time, it's like that story of the little girl throwing starfish that are beached by the thousands on the sand and somebody's walking past and saying, "Oh, foolish young girl, you can't save all of them." She says, "Yes, but it's very important to this one that I just saved," as she tossed it back into the water.

So these issues of poverty, of children who aren't reading at grade level, of families that can't make it to work, let alone earn the job that they deserve to have — just helping one person has a tremendous transformational impact on that individual. But at the same time, we need to see it happen in great numbers for everyone.

What is it like to be a new resident of Erie?

Erie is wonderful and everyone has been so welcoming. I love that we live in a neighborhood. We relish the diversity. We get up extremely early and see young families with their kids out in the park. My wife and I have a committed date every night to see the sunset. We have world-class sunsets. Funny things: We have so many one-way streets. When I'm riding my bicycle, I just stop at every intersection, because I don't know which way the traffic is going. And, gosh, a human interest story this weekend, a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress bomber was down because of the heavy rain at our airport. And I was hanging on the fence staring at it with tears in my eyes, as my dad flew 35 missions in B-17s, and all of a sudden, I was aware of a car right next to me on the grass and the gentleman said, "Hey, anybody standing out here in the rain must be pretty interested. Hop in, I'll take you right to the plane."

I guess the other humorous thing is how many of my close friends and acquaintances from Pittsburgh — I had no idea of the Erie ties, and it's almost freakish. They have called up to their relations or friends and doors have been opened for my wife and I. It's been really a delight.

Lisa Thompson can be reached at 870-1802. Send email to Follow her on Twitter at

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