By Kevin Flowers | Original Article
February 25, 2018
The reset has begun.
Several components of Erie Refocused, the city’s first comprehensive plan in decades, have moved forward since the multiyear plan was unveiled by then-Mayor Joe Sinnott’s administration in April 2016.
Others have progressed more slowly, or have yet to be launched.
Now, roughly two months into his term, Mayor Joe Schember is putting his administration’s stamp on Erie Refocused, in hopes of accelerating the initiative’s timetable and increasing community understanding of the initiative.
The first step in that process, Schember said, has to be widespread engagement of city residents, which is something he promised during his mayoral campaign.
Schember’s administration is planning a series of community conversations, which will start in March, about Erie Refocused. Some of those meetings will take place in conjunction with the Erie School District, and the process includes asking middle and high school students about the types of improvements they want to see the city make.
In an interview last week, Schember said some reconfiguration of Erie Refocused was inevitable with a change in mayoral administrations.
While the plan’s objectives will not fundamentally change — addressing the city’s future needs in a number of areas, including housing, transportation, land use and economic development, to combat decades of systematic decline — Schember said he plans to increase the tempo and add some elements that he believes can fortify what he referred to as an “organic” process.
“Erie Refocused basically gives us high level, general guidelines for what we should do,” Schember said. “I think the most important thing right now is that we need feedback from the community. The plan has been in place almost two years now, and there’s been no feedback and not a lot of communication with the residents. That’s our top priority.
“If we do have to reset it, I’d like to accelerate it, actually,” Schember said. “And the key to that is understanding what the residents want.”
Schember’s plan includes meetings in April at Erie’s three community centers: the Booker T. Washington Center, 1720 Holland St.; the Martin Luther King Center, 312 Chestnut St., and the John F. Kennedy Center, 2021 E. 20th St. Dates and times will be announced later.
In addition, at least five other public meetings about Erie Refocused, separate from the school district-related sessions, will take place in late March and in April, Schember said. Dates, times and locations for those meetings have not yet been finalized.
And the engagement plan, Schember said, will include door-to-door interaction with residents. That will also start this spring, he said.
Schember stressed that Erie Refocused‘s emphasis on improvements along the bayfront and in downtown Erie will not change, because those areas are among the city’s top assets and private investment is already happening there.
He also pointed out that many of the components of an action plan for short-term implementation of some improvement projects recommended as part of Erie Refocused have moved forward, such as creating a local land bank; establishing innovation districts and technology incubators downtown; and finalizing a number of improvements needed along the Bayfront Parkway.
“I’d like most of the (action items) to move quicker than they are,” Schember said. “I also realize this is a 10-year plan and it’s something that’s not going to happen overnight.”
Schember said he moved quickly to add positions to his administration that he believes help support Erie Refocused, including naming Kathy Wyrosdick as the city’s planning director; hiring Brett Wiler as the city’s business development officer; and appointing Abby Skinner as the city’s first full-time grant writer.
Schember, last week, also announced the formation of the Mayor’s Business Council, a 13-member group of local business owners and entrepreneurs that will advise Schember regarding city economic development strategies.
That group will meet for the first time on March 13.
“I just want to make sure that we keep moving,” Schember said.
Charles Buki is the founder and principal consultant at czbLLC, the Alexandria, Virginia-based consulting firm which wrote Erie Refocused. Buki applauded Schember’s approach and said some tweaking of the plan’s implementation process was inevitable with a new administration.
“Good plans are kept good by constant rejiggering, constant amendment, and constant reconsideration… Why? Because conditions change and demand it,” Buki said.
Buki said that, ideally, any changes regarding how the comprehensive plan moves forward are spawned by “transparent” processes “and result from significant and meaningful engagement” with residents.
Buki has long recommended extensive conversations between city officials and the public regarding Erie Refocused, including meetings, so that strategies, choices and other details related to the plan could be fully discussed.
However, just three public meetings took place before Erie Refocused was officially endorsed by City Council in July 2016.
Buki said community engagement tied to Erie Refocused will likely lead to some tense conversations, and not all citizens will agree with the plan’s direction.
But city officials need to push forward, despite any criticism or harsh assessments, he said.
“For outreach and engagement to be significant and meaningful,” Buki said, “it will be imperative that efforts are made not to avoid the friction, but lean into it and modulate the tension constructively.”
‘Citizens are wary’
Parris Baker said he understands what Buki is referring to.
Baker, of Believers International Worship Center in Erie, is an assistant professor and director of the social work program at Gannon University.
He also works with the Eastside Eagles neighborhood watch group, which covers an impoverished portion of Erie’s east bayfront from East Seventh to East 11th streets, between Parade and Wayne streets.
Baker and others refer to the area as the “doughnut hole” because many residents there feel that its needs have not been directly addressed by the city’s long-range planning. Many of those same people, Baker said, are skeptical of Erie Refocused, including many black and Latino citizens.
“They see other areas of the city already benefiting and they feel left behind,” Baker said.
Baker, though, said Schember’s call for extensive community conversation about the comprehensive plan is a good idea.
“If it’s a legitimate conversation with residents, of course I support it,” Baker said. “But too often a lot of the general public feels like minds are already made up and they don’t really want public opinion. Citizens are wary of that. We’re not here to cosign on something that already been determined.”
Wyrosdick, who is organizing the public engagement sessions, said residents’ opinions are valued, and will help shape the direction of Erie Refocused moving forward.
“Everyone has a piece of this … so we all have to re-think how we do stuff,” Wyrosdick said. “If we don’t have these conversations, we’re missing the boat.”
Kevin Flowers can be reached at 870-1693 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNflowers.