Category Archives: Loving Erie

Who came up with ‘Dreary Erie’?

After an amazing summer weekend in Northwestern Pennsylvania, I’m thinking that the person who coined the slogan “Dreary Erie, the mistake on the lake” should be certified.

Even with rain, this extended weekend my family is totally embracing some of the excellent resources available to us in this neck of the woods. We spent a couple days camping at Cook Forest State Park, headed to a family graduation party that was really fun, and now have some sun and fun at Waldameer to look forward to before I go back to work. I wanted to attend the Rust Belt Bloggers summit, but it was just too good of a weekend for a getaway.

You don’t need me to give you a laundry list of the wonderful attributes that our region has to offer. But I do want to encourage you to do two things:

First, you need to get your “hugging hands” out and do the Erie, PA embrace. I have to admit that even after living here 41 of my 46 years (I was one of those brain drainers who got out in my 20’s, then came back when the kids started coming), there are many cool things in Erie that I haven’t experienced, like wine tasting in North East, the Firefighter’s museum, an art gallery opening, and I’m ashamed to say, it’s been a really long time since I’ve been to a Playhouse show. It just takes a little creativity and investment of time and sometimes money, and you can experience so much more of the quality of life that you might feel like you are missing. The Erie Times News does a great job of keeping us informed of all of things that are going on from parish festivals to band concerts. You might just find some weird, awesome, random event that totally exemplifies our town.

The other thing you, and I, need to do is not take our town for granted, because so many of the organizations and entities that create cool things in Erie are hanging on by a thread. You see, with very little growth in population and buying power of our fellow residents, and with the rising cost of everything, the organizations that are Erie’s backbone are getting squeezed. Instantly what comes to mind are the Marx Toy Museum and the Joel 2 ministry to the poor. There are just two examples of Erie assets that needed our help and either we didn’t know it or weren’t quick enough to help.

I love the idea that people from Pittsburgh and Youngstown come to our town to vacation. Think about the money they are willing to spend here, and how they embrace the Erie experience! Nothing dreary about that.

My new adventure: mass transit

5:30 AM: My new I-Home clock radio wakes me to praise music from my I-Pod. I’m embarking on a new adventure today. I’m going to take the bus to work.

Aside: waking up to my I-Pod instead of my favorite radio station, WCTL has me a little concerned that I’ve crossed over to some very bad parallel universe that diminishes the importance of terrestrial broadcasting. More about that in a future post.

6:15 AM: Time to go. I’ve packed my I-Pod, Bible, a book I’m reading, two Fiber One bars. I haven’t had any coffee yet

6:22 AM: My wife drops me at the bus stop, about 10 blocks from my house. I sit down on the bench. I think that I must have looked like a goober sitting there with my Targus computer case upright on my lap. But the morning is beautiful.

6:30 AM: Still on the bench. I’m afraid to put on my earbuds for the I-pod in fear of getting mugged. Stupid I know, but I’m not yet comfortable about sitting on a downtown street corner with several hundred dollars worth of technology on me. I don’t know when my bus will come. One just passed by but it was the M2 and I’m watching for the 14.

6:34 AM: Well at least that’s the time on my 20-ride ticket. I’m thinking that the ticket swiper is running about seven minute slow. No worries, however, because I’ve got plenty of time before my first meeting. The bus driver is friendly, asks where I’m heading and explains that it’s two swipes to Edinboro. Of course I knew that, since I’ve been researching what the logistics would be like to take the bus for the past month now.

For eight years of my life, taking an Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority bus was a daily occurrence. I rode Route 7 to Mercyhurst Prep for four years, getting on at 18th and State often after traversing some gigantic snow mounds at the Erie Central Mall and enduring sub-zero wind chills in my W.T. Grant parka. When college came I rode with my dad the Route 5 bus downtown to 7th and State. But it has been 24 years since those days, in which I’ve probably ridden a city bus 2 or 3 times, max.; until today.

The bus to Edinboro doesn’t really fit my schedule most of the time. During the school year I’ve got to transport kids, and need the flexibility of having my own wheels. But with that round trip to Edinboro in my car now costing $8.00, taking the bus starts looking really good, especially with the summer here. If I can do the bus even once a week, I can pocket $4, and feel good about doing something about these gas prices.

6:50 AM: We are picking people up at the mall. There’s about six or seven other folks on the bus heading toward the Boro. I’ve put my earbuds in and am reading my One Year Bible readings. It’s pretty noisy and squeaky, but for the most part I’m comfortable.

7:12 AM: I put my stuff away and ask the bus driver if could let me out at my work, which is right on the highway he is taking to Edinboro. He obliges, turns on his blinkers and pulls off to the right of the road, exactly in front of the church where I work. To the door service. As he heads on I see the line of nine cars who waited for me to disembark. I feel a little sheepish to be holding up traffic, but glad for the ride.

7:15 AM: I’m at my desk ready to start the day.

As folks come into the office a bit later they are surprised to see that I’m already there. When I tell them that I took the bus, they are kind of shocked and nearly universally exclaim, “Joel, you’re going green!” I look at the environmental-deal as being a cool, yet secondary benefit to spending less than half the cash on my commute.

3:24 PM: Time for the ride home. I’m the first one on, but by the time I get off, the bus is about 60% full. I shared my seat for a couple miles.

4:15 PM:  After getting dropped off and a brisk walk, I’m back home. I can definitely do this next week!

Loving Erie: Thank You General Electric Co.

Let me just come out and say that it is very much a blessing that General Electric is a manufacturer in Erie, PA.
As the shareholders of GE gather in Erie at our new Convention Center for their first annual meeting here in 18 years, I’d like to give a verbal “hug” to this far-flung multinational conglomerate.
Just examine what GE brings to the table by operating its plant here:

  • Well over 5,000 good paying jobs
  • Maintaining incomes of thousands more GE retirees
  • Economic impact of millions of dollars into the local economy via local suppliers
  • Huge investment into the tax base of local governments
  • Innovation that started with Edison’s light bulb that now employs hundreds of engineers and knowledge workers
  • Direct contributions from their foundation, including $15 million to the Erie School District for math and science learning aids
  • A benchmark in best practice for other local firms to conform to

As CEO Jeffrey Immelt expressed this morning at the shareholders meeting,

By the ‘laws of nature’ this business should not exist in this city… This is a 100-year-old business, in a 100-year-old factory, located in a city that has been rocked by industrial layoffs. Yet, we love this business and we are fond of the city. Our business is thriving. Why? Because we invest and deliver — because we are GE.

That kind of insistence on excellence is exceptional in a climate where flagging businesses scapegoat or cry victimhood. GE Transportation loves Erie and we love GE, and we wish all of its stakeholders continued success.

Loving Erie-The Non-Profits: Part Four: The Arts

In the final article of this series, I wish to celebrate the excellent work of our arts community. When you think about it, Erie is really blessed with a broad arts community, quite beyond what our population and economics would indicate.

For example, I lived in Nashville, TN for a few years in the late 1980’s. Now before you turn on your “hick voice” imitation and start singing a country song, let me assure you that Nashville was and continues to be an affluent and sophisticated city. Beyond the record studios and honky-tonks were corporate headquarters for insurance, banking, and publishing, as well as all of the resources of a state capital. One of the things that struck me however was the lack of diversity in its arts community. Back then the Nashville Symphony was on life-support, trying to maintain a full-time orchestra. Their ballet company and Equity theater had just started and were under-marketed. It just didn’t seem like much was going on considering the city was four times larger than Erie.

You see, I had been exposed to the arts since my childhood in Erie. Some of my favorite memories are linked to the Arts Festival, which used to be held in Perry Square. This was a life-changing way for a city kid to see great art, listen to jazz and classical, and maybe play in that space for a little while. When I was a teenager, I volunteered as an usher at the Erie Philharmonic, serving the paying public while hearing the beautiful sounds of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Handel. In college I participated in Gannon Theatre and many of my friends have had roles at the Playhouse, Roadhouse, and the other area theatres.

It’s really easy to be enriched by the arts in Erie. It’s an organic, Erie-thing. Even the crustiest line worker at GE will take his wife out to dinner and catch the latest show at the Playhouse. How about the would-be stage mommies signing up their daughters for classes at Lake Erie Ballet? Or the huge crowds for the jazz festival or Eight Greats?

That is the rub, though. We love our arts in Erie, however, we love them cheap. The same people that will pay Jerry Seinfeld $70 to tell jokes for an hour choke on $33 to hear the whole Erie Philharmonic perform their best.

We have to be careful with our artists because the real expenses of providing that quality that we expect have to be met. Every once in a while you hear whispers of how this organization is doing poorly, or how tickets are slow for that show. If we want a vibrant cultural community in Erie, we have to support it with our feet and wallets. Perhaps there is something to be said for using gambling money for endowments for our most critical arts organizations. Meanwhile, through their ongoing outreach efforts, the arts folks must develop a new generation of appreciative patrons, lest we all lose their beauty.

Loving Erie-The Non-Profits: Part Three: Human Services

So we may not have a Betty Ford, or a Promises complete with a Hollywood starlet-filled waiting list. There’s no Dr. Phil or Dr. Keith. But when it comes to human services, Erie is known as a recovery town.

You may not believe it, but our area is considered a retreat or respite. Children, men and women living difficult to tragic lifestyles in places like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh are rescued to some of the finest physical and emotional rehabilitation and recovery facilities in the nation. The list is long: Harborcreek Youth Services, Perseus House, Catholic Charities, Safe Harbor, Stairways, Sarah Reed, Bethesda, Barber National Institute, Erie City Mission, Women’s Care Center, Salvation Army…I could go on and on. You could say that from Erie’s heart, an abundance of love is shared.

I’m very acquainted with the work of the Erie City Mission, having assisted with their advertising in indirect and direct ways for over five years. As their website says, the Erie City Mission is a Christian social outreach program created in 1911 by the famous evangelist Billy Sunday. Their ministry is broken down into three areas: Samaritan care (“three hots and a cot” emergency food and shelter), the New Life program (residential recovery and life skills training), and their treatment services for drugs, alcohol and gambling addictions. They also run a terrific Family Care Center sharing food baskets and clothes.

When you see the numbers behind just one of the agencies like the City Mission, you get a grasp of the depth of need in our region. Here’s how the Mission stacks up:

  • 150,000 free hot meals to the public yearly
  • 2,200 families served with free groceries and clothing each month
  • 500 men in recovery each year

I’ve heard it said that the Mission’s work with homeless men represents percentage points decrease in crime in our city. As their President, Jack Kovacs, said in their latest newsletter: “Without the Mission, what would happen to these men? Would they revert to the streets again, committing crimes to support their addictions? How safe would our community be if these men would be turned out to “make it” on their own? Who in our community would come forward to help them, and at what cost would it be done?”

That’s just one agency, catering to one slice of our area’s population, and they are making a huge difference to all of our quality of life. With human services in Erie, you can’t always place a dollars and cents value on their institutional impact. Indeed, many of our most-beloved caregivers work for peanuts. However, it is the question of what would happen if we lost them, how would life in Erie diminish without their good works, that must be asked. The answer is not governmental harassment or their being taken for granted, but celebration and appreciation for their efforts, often acting as the hands and feet of God.

Loving Erie-The Non-Profits: Part Two, Education

This was a big news day for higher education in Erie. Mercyhurst College announced the receipt of $150,000 in state aid for its nursing program at its North East campus. Down in Edinboro, EUP leadership rolled out a $115 million comprehensive plan to build new student housing and a dining hall. When you look at the kind of money that gets thrown around by our institutions of learning, you get a better understanding of the importance these organizations have on our local economy.

Let me say upfront that I’m an ardent admirer of the academy. I was fortunate to spend four years as a student and five years as a professional adviser/adjunct at Gannon University. I like the whole context of expanding a young person’s mind, challenging them to find answers to new questions, the older imparting wisdom and lessons learned to the younger, the whole “beret wearing and pontificating” deal (JK). Our area colleges and universities are incubators of idealism and forward-thinking; there’s just a higher-density of smart people hanging around.

Our community has greatly benefited both directly and indirectly by the strength of Gannon, Mercyhurst, Penn State-Behrend, Edinboro, and LECOM. Those who lead our educational institutions are also board members of our organizations, researchers and advisors to government officials, and of course, taxpayers of an upper-income who, in regards to Gannon and Mercyhurst faculty and staff, are more likely to live in the city enjoying the classic housing stock in the Glenwood and Frontier neighborhoods.

Then of course we must consider the students. Close to 20,000 of them are enrolled, equivalent to 7% of our metro population (that would be quite a voting block!). Each one student could represent as much as $30,000 of direct impact into our economy, just for tuition and fees. When you add the trips to Wal-Mart, Wegmans, and multiple other establishments, you are talking many, many millions invested in our community. Indeed, these kids are customers that we want to keep happy!

With the city’s financial predicament causing tension between City Hall and Old Main, there needs to be mutual understanding toward shared goals. For example, it seems reasonable to me to have student housing taxed at normal rates, at minimum, upperclassmen’s apartments, since they have the option to live off-campus. The city should acknowledge the great lengths the colleges have gone to increasing security in their neighborhoods, greatly benefiting those areas.

Finally, I think we should continue to lean on our learned professors and administrators to help provide answers to our regions’ problems. Use their great data collecting and processing capabilities to conduct research and project outcomes. Encourage them in their health and growth. As they educate our young brains, we must work on plugging up the “drain.”

Loving Erie-The Non-Profits: Part One, Health Care

When you are a dad of three active children, you are bound at some point to find yourself sitting in an Emergency Room waiting area holding a hurting kid. For those of us living in the Erie area, we are fortunate that within minutes of a mishap, we can experience those wonderful waiting room moments at one of our three area hospitals.

But Erie’s health care system is no longer just reactive to illness. The excellence and sophistication of our organizations have allowed them to turn the page to wellness and a proactive posture in making Erieites healthier. Their commitment to best practice, growth, and forward thinking make our lives literally better.

Don’t forget, however that health care in Erie is big business. Hamot, Millcreek, and St. Vincent’s employ between them over 6,000 workers. According to the 2006 annual reports of Hamot & St. V’s (Millcreek’s was not available), the hospitals generated over $635 million in revenue and spent into the Erie economy almost $620 million, not including the building they both are doing on a regular basis. The hospitals combined were over half as big as our local Fortune 500 member, Erie Insurance, which had operating revenues of $1.134 billion in the same year. You also have to consider the “ripple” effect each hospital brings to the region, greatly exceeding the direct spending the organizations do.

While we are talking numbers, we must consider the amount of free health care that these facilities provide, which is well into 8-figures combined. The economic impact is unquestioned. I think about what incredible machinations our government officials will do to bring in 300 jobs for a juice plant into our area. Meanwhile, Hamot alone in the past five years increased income by $128 million and employment in the hundreds.

What about “outside” money, meaning not just recycling local income but bringing in from outside the area? This will sound controversial, but consider this: St. Vincent’s report indicates that half of their operating revenue comes from either Medicare or Medicaid. That is equivalent to a $142 million federal subsidy of our healthcare system, just at one hospital.

But what about all of that tax-free land they use up? The land that these facilities are buying at market rates has been available for commercial concerns, but no one was willing to pay the freight. The benefit to their building programs will mean higher quality office space stock being built adjacent to the hospitals, and those developers will pay the taxes, after the LERTA period is up.

Good paying, family-sustaining jobs. High technology and constant investment in our community. Thank you to our friends in health-care, who help provide a high-quality life in Erie, the city we love.