By Pat Howard | Original Article
Oct. 25, 2018

As I’ve written before, consultant Charles Buki did this community a service by attaching his blunt assessment of the state of Erie’s civic health to the Erie Refocused comprehensive plan.

His third-party take and his apparently constitutional avoidance of euphemism helped to cut through our town’s penchant for denial, drift and malaise. I revisit it now and then to mentally benchmark how far we’ve come since.

Among the maladies that Buki diagnosed were a deep-seated aversion to risk, splintered leadership in the public and private sectors, and a deficit of trust among stakeholders that prompted the players to hang back and see who would go first. To muddle along, in other words.

“Often, what plagues Erie is waiting for someone else to trail blaze,” Buki wrote in March 2016. “Leave it to Erie Insurance. To Hamot.”

Whatever galvanizing effect Buki’s assessment had, his words also foreshadowed events. It turns out that Erie Insurance did take the point, and UPMC Hamot and other local institutions of means put major money into the game.

The splashiest move was the launch and capitalization of the Erie Downtown Development Corp. with the mission of remaking Erie’s core. Erie Insurance seeded the effort with $5 million, with company Chairman Tom Hagen kicking in $2.5 million more, while Hamot and other institutions also ponied up to raise the EDDC’s ante to $27 million at last report.

The EDDC’s public launch in June 2017 made tangible the sort of broad community mobilization that Erie Refocused is premised on. And it aligned squarely with one of the plan’s key recommendations — concerted action to strengthen Erie’s downtown and adjacent neighborhoods.

Also encouraging has been the urgency with which EDDC leaders got things up and running, including hiring former Erie mayoral candidate John Persinger as its CEO. Just more than 14 months after the EDDC’s plans first became public, the organization completed its first big deal — buying eight contiguous parcels of land along State Street and facing Perry Square along North Park Row.

Among the early investors in the EDDC was the Erie Community Foundation, which committed $2.5 million. That investment was notable not only for its scale, but also for its nature. Through most of its 83-year history, the foundation built its endowment while making community grants with investment income.

In buying into the EDDC, the foundation bet some of its principal on Erie’s future, money for which the size and timing of the return is uncertain. But foundation leaders weren’t done.

Behind the scenes they were planning to double down and then some. The results of that due diligence were announced last week, to the tune of $30 million over five years.

Part of that commitment involves doing what the foundation has long done, only more of it. The foundation will double its budget for what it calls Helping Today grants to bolster Erie’s nonprofit sector and the work it does.

That will take the total annual amount of such grants from $500,000 to $1 million. That’s a big deal in part because it will help fill some of the gaps created when the United Way of Erie County switched from its traditional funding model to a “collective impact” strategy focused on the root causes of generational poverty.

The other two prongs of the foundation’s five-year funding framework aim higher. One involves committing $15 million for projects that are meant, like the United Way’s anti-poverty strategy, “to address community issues at scale.” The foundation will seek proposals for those grants — aimed at boosting transformational projects — through a process that’s more collaborative and open-ended than usual.

But the biggest stretch for the foundation involves the remaining $10 million. It is looking to leverage that money not through grants but investments that will put more foundation principal on the line in hopes of a modest return over time.

That will add to the community’s pool of “patient capital” that, as with the EDDC, aims to jump-start projects that might not otherwise draw private investment. It’s further evidence that Buki’s warning about risk aversion didn’t fall on deaf ears.

“Other strong champions of this community have been taking on a lot,” said the foundation’s chairman, McInnes Rolled Rings CEO Tim Hunter. “In my 56 years, I have never seen an opportunity like this. We don’t want to take on excess risk, but we do have to take on risk.”

The biggest risk, of course, is doing nothing and expecting different results. Two and a half years after Charles Buki’s manifesto, it’s looking more and more like those days are behind us.