Erie region must make use of all economic development tools
In the summer of 2019, the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership hosted Erie Homecoming 2019 to showcase the developments, investments, businesses, institutions, and leaders that are moving Erie’s economy forward. The event shattered the tired rustbelt stereotypes that define Erie and other legacy communities across the Midwest, refuting an often simplistic, unfair narrative. Instead, a diverse roster of local and national investors, developers, philanthropists, and capital allocators witnessed the palpable enthusiasm and spirit of collaboration of this community. Erie Homecoming demonstrated the vibrancy, momentum, and natural assets of the region while providing a stage for Erie’s most important asset—our people and their commitment to positive change.
At its core, Erie Homecoming 2019 was a testament to a new era of collaboration amongst key community institutions and businesses looking to capitalize on the Opportunity Zone tax incentive. Since the earliest days of the Opportunity Zone legislation, many of our community’s leaders have crisscrossed the country to meet with investors, developers, policymakers, and anyone else who will listen and learn about the Erie investment opportunity and the good work being done to revitalize and reinvent a once-booming manufacturing town. The feedback we’ve received provided a much-needed dose of self-confidence. More than any other time in our recent history, Erie can realistically market itself as a destination where funders and developers can see both an economic and profoundly positive social return on their investment.
As we enter 2020, there is every reason to be positive about Erie’s future. The Erie Regional Chamber, through the launch of our five-year Erie Forward initiative, is poised to continue building upon the momentum created at Erie Homecoming and through our Opportunity Zone efforts. But Opportunity Zones are only one tool in a readily-available toolbox to spur more investment in Erie.
Historically, Erie hasn’t fully utilized an economic development toolbox. Charles Buki, chief architect of the Erie Refocused plan, identified this back in 2015. Mayor Schember’s new administration explicitly addressed this in their five-year action plan by committing to continue developing core competencies in the areas of public/private partnerships and through the utilization of public financing tools. While we are encouraged by Mayor Schember’s announcement to continue deploying these tools, there is more to be done at all levels of the private and public sector. These efforts -- and those of similar organizations that have already publicly committed to investing in Erie – cannot be the only players willing to unlock capital; more is needed to truly transform our community and maximize the unique potential before us.
A community that is serious about robust economic development for lasting and transformative improvements looks at all available funding tools including but not limited to Tax Increment Financing, Historic Tax Credits, New Market Tax Credits, and the dormant Community Revitalization Investment Zone (CRIZ) program in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Our elected leaders have the unique authority to unlock access to creative public financing solutions to help drive our community’s economic evolution.
Look no further than Dayton, Ohio where a beautiful historic building in the heart of downtown is undergoing a $90 million mixed-use renovation that includes housing, retail, restaurants, and a joint tenancy with University of Dayton and the Entrepreneurs Center. While the project has three private sector partners, it required 26 layers of financing and various economic development tools to make it work. Unfortunately, economic development is complex, which underscores the importance of our ongoing charge to explore all options to unlock capital through the private and public sectors.
The stark reality facing Erie is that we lack the economic infrastructure truly needed to have an innovation-based local economy. This reality became more evident after our recent Competitive Realities Report and Target Industry Analysis by Garner Economics, which pointed out this deficiency as one of the largest deterrents in our ability to attract new business to our community.
We cannot afford to tip-toe around difficult conversations and decisions to use all available funding and revenue streams possible to enhance and revitalize Erie’s industries. This is how we will successfully attract high-growth companies that align with the six target industries best positioned to succeed in Erie County.
Like most legacy communities, Erie is still building the inclusive, modern economy that can give our citizens the opportunities they deserve. However, we aren’t beginning this decade at zero. Many of our region’s leaders continue working tirelessly to strengthen a city and community we all love. Erie Homecoming was a testament to that passion, dedication, and optimism. This year we will help build on that momentum by better understanding and illustrating how other communities with similar challenges and opportunities utilized their full economic development toolbox.
This piece appeared in the Erie Times-News Sunday, January 12, 2020, Guest Viewpoint.