By Valerie Myers | Original Article
March 18, 2018

A major focus of the plan is revitalizing the “gateway to Presque Isle.”

Millcreek Township officials are looking into the future for problems that the township will need to address over the next two decades.

They’re also looking at more immediate concerns.

The result will be a new comprehensive plan to address both here-and-now and future issues, from fixing roads and stormwater flooding to dressing up major township commercial districts and providing bike and pedestrian paths.

A draft of the Embrace Millcreek plan is expected to be presented to the public this spring and to township supervisors for adoption this summer.

“We’re taking an honest look at ourselves and admitting that our roads are not in the shape they ought to be and that our stormwater system is not what it ought to be,” township Supervisor John Morgan said. Morgan, previously a transportation planner with the Erie County Department of Planning, has been leading the Embrace Millcreek initiative. “People who say their road hasn’t been paved in 20 years aren’t wrong. We have no record of 40 percent of our roads being paved in the last 20 years.”

The plan also will look beyond those issues for ways to stop blight, add amenities and attract visitors, residents and businesses. Recommendations will be “do-able,” Morgan said.

“This isn’t pie in the sky,” Morgan said. “The goals will be achievable. They’re going to be affordable. And we have a staff in place that can carry the ball when we get it.

This will be a plan for things that we can accomplish, and the community will be able to hold our feet to the fire if we don’t do them,” Morgan said.

On March 13, a hallway at the Millcreek Township municipal building is decorated with the details of the township’s Embrace Millcreek comprehensive plan.

 

Accentuating the positive — Presque Isle

Major focuses of the plan include aesthetics, or making the major gateways to Presque Isle — along Peninsula Drive, West Eighth, West 12th and West 26th streets — more attractive to visitors and businesses.

Presque Isle State Park attracts more than 4 million visitors annually, but the approaches to the park leave something to be desired, according to planners and residents.

Fixes could include improved “streetscapes,” especially along Peninsula Drive, with large trees and new lighting and signs from West 26th Street to Presque Isle State Park, according to preliminary plan documents.

“Complete street” improvements along West Eighth Street and West 12th and West 26th street commercial districts near Presque Isle are also a focus of the comprehensive plan.

Those improvements could include bicycle and pedestrian corridors, especially along Peninsula Drive, to connect to the multipurpose trail at Presque Isle State Park. Improvements also could include bike racks, benches, trees and pedestrian-level lighting.

The idea is to accommodate visitors, shoppers and residents who prefer not to use cars.

“Complete streets make it easier to cross streets and walk or bike to shops, restaurants and work,” according to preliminary Embrace Millcreek findings.

Residents are behind the plan, Morgan said.

“Presque Isle is our biggest attraction. We have the responsibility to do more to make sure that visitors don’t stop at the interstate and just go to Splash Lagoon,” said Judy Wheaton, who represented the Chestnut Hills Association in Embrace Millcreek planning.

 

Street smarts — for business, too

The proposed streetscape and complete streets changes also could help the township attract new businesses and potentially new types of businesses. Millcreek’s major commercial districts are heavily retail-centric, planners said, with 4.7 million square feet of retail space, half of that along upper Peach Street and the remainder largely along West Eighth, 12th and 26th streets.

The worry, according to planning documents, is the trend of retail stores closing, “leaving the township vulnerable to rising vacancies as the retail sector evolves,” especially toward increased online sales.

Businesswoman Robyn Crago has been working on her own concept to make the West Eighth Street commercial district more inviting to business owners and customers. Crago and her husband own Les Crago Jeweler in the Shops at the Colony on West Eighth Street. Robyn Crago also owns Salon Verde at 2324 W. Eighth St.

Crago envisions a West Eighth Street Marketplace with sidewalks, benches, lampposts and other pedestrian and bike-friendly features. Inspired by the Short North district in Columbus, Ohio, Crago has been working with township planners to incorporate the ideas into the Embrace Millcreek plan.

The marketplace would be an additional attraction along the West Eighth Street corridor between Erie’s bayfront and Presque Isle State Park, Crago said.

“I always felt that as the bayfront is developed, West Eighth Street would be a natural corridor from the bayfront to the peninsula,” Crago said.

But the corridor needs work, she said, to attract residents and visitors.

“It needs to be more inviting,” Crago said. “It could be a nice place to walk to take in the shops and restaurants and all of the events that go on along Eighth Street.”

Crago and Shops at the Colony owner Chip Riehl have met with state, city and township planners and owners of the reinvented West Erie Plaza to promote the West Eighth Street Marketplace plan. The iron gate at the West Erie Plaza, also inspired by Columbus’ Short North district, could be a theme all along West Eighth Street, Crago said, with matching arches at Frontier Park, Pittsburgh Avenue and at Peninsula Drive, for the West Eighth Street Marketplace.

“We’re all on the same page that the corridor should be developed,” Crago said.

 

‘Nuts and bolts’ needs — works in progress

Millcreek Township officials already are addressing more immediate problems, including crumbling roads, stormwater and the beginnings of neighborhood blight, Morgan said.

Township supervisors recently restructured township departments and staff to better address road, flooding and code-enforcement needs, he said.

Supervisors in 2017 also initiated a detailed survey of township streets and prioritized streets for paving. About two-thirds of the streets maintained by the township are in need of repair, according to findings.

Supervisors this year allocated more money for those repairs — $2.5 million, up from $1.8 million in 2017.

Supervisors also will pay private contractors to repair some streets with the cooperation of township unions.

“Our unions have been great in working with us to allow us to contract out some of that work,” Morgan said.

A survey of storm sewers is needed to help the township plan repairs and increase capacity, according to planning documents. The preliminary plans note that available green space in the township could be obtained for use as parks and for additional stormwater retention.

Improvements should be prioritized in a capital projects budget, Morgan said.

“I think the township does have money available for infrastructure needs,” he said. “It’s a matter of putting it where it’s needed.”

 

Paying the price versus ‘pie in the sky’

A comprehensive plan for infrastructure, neighborhoods and business and residential development is only good if it’s “do-able” and affordable, Morgan said

To boost business and development, the township has applied for state Opportunity Zone designation for the Presque Isle corridor. The Opportunity Zone program was created by the 2017 tax reform act and will offer tax incentives for private investments in redevelopment and business startups in areas struggling with poverty and slow job and business growth.

Gov. Tom Wolf this spring will designate 250 Opportunity Zones, or about 25 percent of the eligible districts in the state.

Erie officials have submitted eight city tracts for Opportunity Zone consideration.

Proceeds from the 2016 sale of the Millcreek Township Water Authority to Erie Water Works could help fund major Millcreek streetscape and accessibility improvements, Morgan said.

The township received $12 million at the sale’s closing and is receiving $1 million annually with interest for 10 years. Money so far received is in a reserve fund and could be used to match hoped-for dollars from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, Morgan said. The township can apply for the state funding once it has “shovel-ready” projects, he said.

 

The process — what’s been done and what’s to come

The planning process started in 2017 when supervisors and township planning commissioners brainstormed needs, issues and visions for Millcreek’s future. Supervisors hired Virginia-based consulting firm czbLLC to help document conditions and needs and outline a path forward.

The public shared concerns and ideas in online surveys and a series of community meetings. More than 1,000 people responded to the Embrace Millcreek survey this past fall. Several hundred people attended the recent community meetings, Morgan said.

“This plan is being driven by our citizen planners and by public engagement,” he said. “It’s not been consultants but has been elected officials and staff who have been out in front of people taking the arrows. We’re doing our best to make sure this is a grassroots process and that this plan is owned by the community.”

Wheaton applauds the township for the plan and for opening the planning process to the community.

“This obviously has had a lot of forethought. It’s very well thought out, with specific direction for the future,” she said. “It’s also been very transparent, and they’ve sought out public input and been inclusive. That just makes this plan that much better.”

Crago agrees.

“I give Millcreek credit for really having done their due diligence in having meetings, informing the public and asking people what they think,” she said.

Plan findings and considerations to date are detailed online at the Embrace Millcreek website.