By Kevin Flowers | Original Article
January 11, 2018
The details of urban redevelopment can keep Kathy Wyrosdick up at night.
Wyrosdick — who will start on Jan. 22 as the city of Erie’s new planning director— said it’s not unusual for thoughts of Erie Refocused, the city’s first comprehensive, multiyear development plan in decades, to interrupt her sleep.
The plan addresses the city’s future need in a number of areas, including housing, transportation, land use and economic development, to combat decades of systematic decline.
“At 2 a.m., my brain says, ‘OK, start thinking about what you’re going to be doing today,’” Wyrosdick said.
New Mayor Joe Schember lured Wyrosdick, 48, away from Erie County government, where she led the county’s Department of Planning for County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper’s administration. He expects Wyrosdick to be his administration’s point person for implementing Erie Refocused.
Wyrosdick, a former planning director in Fairmont, West Virginia, has worked closely with city officials on Erie Refocused for more than two years. She helped craft an action plan for short-term implementation of some improvement projects recommended as part of the comprehensive plan.
Both she and Schember have said that an initial priority will be setting up a series of citywide neighborhood meetings to better explain Erie Refocused to residents and to hear their concerns.
Wyrosdick sat down with the Erie Times-News this week for an extensive interview. Here is what she had to say.
Q: What has Mayor Schember relayed to you regarding his expectations regarding you and this position, and what have you told him about what you expect in terms of support, resources, etc.?
A: The mayor’s directive to me is aggressive implementation of Erie Refocused. That is as broad as he’s been in terms of a definition of my role with the city. My response to him was that we have an action plan, and that’s really where I want to start. Looking at where areas of the action plan have begun, where things have stalled, and how I can get things moving. And focusing on the neighborhood piece of the action plan, like stabilization and neighborhood strengthening. We need to identify priorities and build models to address those priorities.
Q: What kind of director/manager are you in terms of style and approach?
A: I like to think out of the box, but with a sense of reality. I understand how challenging my role is, and with local government there is bureaucracy you have to work with, so I know that things sometimes take time. I also understand that I don’t know everything. I like to rely on the people who have been doing the work and have struggled with it, to help me learn. And to support them in any way I can.
Q: Make your pitch to the public regarding why the city of Erie needs a full-time planning director.
A: Planning in general is about problem-solving. It’s about looking at what’s happening now and what our vision is for the future and getting us there. Planners typically bring that kind of mindset to where they’re being asked to work. I happen to have worked in this profession for more than 20 years. The mayor saw that as something needed in the city. Most municipalities the size of the city of Erie have planning staff out there dong that type of work. The city of Erie didn’t have anyone dedicated to doing that kind of work. I think also that we’re really good at plans, but not so much at implementation. The planner’s role is implementation largely, the execution of those plans.
Q: Describe what you think the city’s immediate priorities should be to effectively move Erie Refocused forward.
A: I was just having this conversation with someone involved in downtown development. The approach is going to be internal and external.
I go back to the cover letter that Charles Buki submitted with the comprehensive plan. When he talked about the elements we need to start addressing. Selling assets short. Looking at what we are doing that makes us fall behind as a community. We have to fix that part of it. Self-defeating habits and attitudes. That is not only an external act, that’s why this community has to come together and say, “We’re done with that. We’re done thinking in the deficit.”
At City Hall, there’s going to be a change in mindset. And in the community there has to be a change in mindset. We have to keep promoting that we’re not doing the same things anymore and there has to be a culture change.
Risk aversion is another thing. Calculated risk-taking is where we need to be. We have to be comfortable with that. If we aren’t, we’re going to lose.
Q: Mayor Schember said he plans to go into neighborhoods with meetings and a door-to-door campaign within his first 100 days to thoroughly explain Erie Refocused and the city’s approach to residents. Why is that necessary, in your opinion?
A: Everyone has to own this. Everyone is part of the solution. No more finger-pointing. So when we start reaching out to neighborhoods and residents, we have to understand how we capture their concerns and they have to understand how they fit into the solutions. We’ve got to collectively solve this.
Q: There are skeptics in Erie who see Erie Refocused as another consultant-driven plan that, eventually, will sit on a shelf and collect dust like many others. As planning director, what will you do to keep that from happening?
A: I just don’t let it happen. Failure is not an option. The most valuable part of the comprehensive plan is that it’s a decision-making guide that can help you change how you make decisions so that you’re reaping the greatest impact for the longest amount of time.
We measure progress. You’re measuring performance. And we have to say, “What does success look like?” I have an opinion, but I’m not the only one who has to answer that. The mayor, City Council, the community, they will help answer that, too. And then we have to go back and continue to look at the plan and see if it’s still relevant, and if it’s not, let’s see where it needs to be updated.
Q: What regional perspective in regards to planning did your time as county planning director give you? What were the big takeaways?
A: Collaboration is a good place to start. The city is a major player in the region. We have to figure out how the city best works collaboratively with the other areas. The city sets the tempo for the region in many ways. In my time here, I was awestruck but the resources we already have here that I don’t think are being used wisely enough. I go back to my time in West Virginia and what it’s like to try to do things with so few resources.
Q: You are not originally from Erie, but you made a choice to live in the city of Erie, not the suburbs. You took a job with city government and a new mayoral administration. Why was it important to you to become so vested in the city?
A: I think it will make me more credible in my job. It would be hard for me to know and fully understand what the issues are if I wasn’t living in the city. Too often, I was a hypocrite in the past. I’ve always loved big cities, but in other jobs I was an urban planner who didn’t live in the inner city. How do I become part of the solution? That’s important to me. Living within the city limits is going to make me better at my job, and more sensitive to the decisions I’m promoting and the projects that I’m saying should move forward.
Kevin Flowers can be reached at 870-1693 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNflowers.