Ralph Ford: “I think we are on a really good path. I don’t know if we have turned any corner. I think you can only see that in hindsight.”



Ralph Ford, chancellor of Penn State Behrend and an Erie resident for 25 years, knows one thing about turning points: They can be hard to spot when they’re happening.


When it comes to the fortunes of his adopted hometown, he said, “ I think we are on a really good path. I don’t know if we have turned any corner. I think you can only see that in hindsight.”


For people who live and work in Erie, and especially for those who care about its future, the year that ended on Dec. 31 was anything but forgettable.


The year 2019 might be remembered as the year of the Undercover Billionaire, who slept in his truck and started a business; the year of big investments by local interests; and the year that Erie invited the world to hear its pitch.


It was the year Airborn Inc. in Lake City announced plans for a $3.7 million expansion, the year the Erie Downtown Development Corp. unveiled plans for a culinary arts district and a new four-story building on State Street.


And it was the year eggs got broken in the making of this omelet of reinvention. Businesses forced out when their leases weren’t renewed by the EDDC expressed their displeasure and, in some cases, the public rallied around them.


What didn’t happen was more of the same.


Taking notice of Erie


For once in 2019, the outside world seemed to be paying attention to Erie.


And not just to tell the story in broadly-painted brushstrokes of a down-on-its-luck Rust Belt town that can’t catch a break.


From Homecoming 2019, which brought investors and a member of White House cabinet to Erie, to the national media, which seemed to take notice of the progress being made and not just what was broken, 2019 saw Erie collect notice and praise.


Much of that praise came from people writing about the possibilities of federal Opportunity Zones.


In a speech in June, urban expert Bruce Katz said that Erie, through the investments of its anchor institutions, had created a model that others could follow.


“You’re leading the parade, and the whole country, frankly, is watching,” Katz said.


In December, a cooperative effort between Forbes and Sorenson Impact Center named Erie to a list of the nation’s top Opportunity Zone catalysts.


No victory laps


James Grunke, CEO of the Erie Regional Chamber, which organized Homecoming 2019, no doubt likes the sound of what Katz and Forbes are saying.


But he has something in common with Ken Louie, professor of economics at Penn State Behrend and director of the Behrend’s Economic Research Institute of Erie.


Neither one is ready to declare victory.


Partly, that’s due to natural caution. Grunke, who has been in economic development for 30 years, often says he doesn’t count a job as being created until he sees the first employee walk through the door.


Part of its is more practical.


The good news of the past year — including the news over the summer of a $26 million investment to bring a campus of the Magee-Womens Research Institute to Erie and word of a like-sized investment by Gannon University in downtown Erie — seems to suggest Erie is sowing seeds of hope.


But that doesn’t mean the local economy is in full recovery mode.


The numbers on the ground continue to paint a less-than-perfect picture.


“Manufacturing continues to shed jobs,” Louie said. “Nationally, manufacturing is considered to be in recession. Erie mirrors that concern.”


Many of 2019’s metrics are good. The stock market soared. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Erie County fell as low as 3.9 percent and hovered for most of the year at below 4.5 percent.


“But the fact that things are stable doesn’t mean that everything is rosy,” Louie said.


Basic economics tells us that the tight labor market produced by low unemployment should lead to rising wages.


That hasn’t happened, Louie said. He can point to a number of potential reasons, including the rise of the gig economy and a reluctance of employees to push for higher wages as they worry about the possibility of automation.


Sowing the seeds


Stagnant wages aside, Louie saw a lot of news last year that seemed to suggest Erie might be poised for a turnaround.


The seeds have been planted. Momentum is gathering.


“In my opinion, we are not quite yet at that really rapid growth trajectory that we would all like to see,” Louie said.


Ford says Erie won’t really have turned the corner until it’s population trend is reversed is or becomes stable.


He sees Behrend, which last year announced it would invest in a new laboratory as part of the Magee-Womens Research Institute-Erie, as part of a solution that will bring new jobs and new residents to Erie.


“I would say I am as optimistic as I have ever been, but realistic in that we do face challenges,” Ford said.


Ford said he recognizes that a lot of attention has been focused downtown, perhaps to the exclusion of other areas.


“All the boats are going to rise here,” Ford said. “We need to have faith that when one area grows we are all going to grow.”


Grunke, who began work as CEO of the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership in September 2018, said he feels confident that the community is laying the groundwork to overcome those challenges.


The chamber is nearing the final stages of a $5.2 million fundraising effort to pay for economic development efforts over the next five years.


In the meantime, the chamber is planning to reprise 2019’s Opportunity Zone-focused Homecoming event as it continues to follow up on leads that grew out of that event.


One of those leads involves the possibility of a $100 million investment in Erie.


Grunke is being cautious not to get ahead of himself. But he sees that interest as evidence that something good might flow from Erie’s efforts.


“Because of Homecoming and because of Opportunity Zones, we have, I think, the potential for the largest outside investment in Erie that has ever happened,” Grunke said.


That project is far from a done deal, he said.


But it’s evidence, all the same, that the investments of local companies and nonprofits and the positive buzz surrounding Erie add up to something.


Before, he said, “We would never have been on their radar screen.”


Contact JIM MARTIN: jim.martin@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNMartin.