Thursday, March 2, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: My Hometown In The News

As a native of Erie, PA who now lives in a large midwestern
city and metropolitan center, I try to keep in touch with my
hometown as much as I can. I do this not only out of
emotional loyalty, but also because Erie is a special place,
both in U.S. history and as an important early industrial and
transportation center.

Economically, Erie has recently had some hard times, as have
most other cities, large and small, in the nation’s Middle
Atlantic rust belt where so much of U.S. heavy manufacturing
used to be concentrated.

When I was growing up in Erie, its population was above
100,000 and growing, reaching a post World War II high of
about 135,000. In the latest census, it dipped just below 100,000
for the first time in almost a century --- although its total
metropolitan area population remained about the same
(because many of its emigrating city dwellers moved to its
suburbs). Some also left Erie County, PA altogether because
many heavy industries closed, and they could not find
replacement jobs. Most notably, such major factories as
Hammermill Paper Company, Zurn Industries, Kaiser
Aluminum, Bucyrus-Erie and Marx Toy Company closed,
and the area’s largest employer, General Electric Transportation,
reduced its work force drastically. Erie also was home to many
small industrial factories making tools, machine parts, and meters.
It was once as well, literally, the nuts and bolts capital of the
world. It was, and continues to be, one of the nation’s centers
for plastics manufacturing.

The major new employers in Erie are, first, Erie Insurance,
a Fortune 500 company that has had remarkable growth in
recent decades: local hospitals and healthcare facilities which
serve not only Erie, but the whole Pennsylvania-New York-
Ohio region: and its growing number of colleges and
universities (very few of which existed before World War II).
Erie’s historic shipbuilding industry, which goes back to the
18th century (and played a key role in our decisive naval
victory in the War of 1812) has been revived, and its
long-time tourist industry has recently been greatly expanded
with new hotels, a race track and casino, and numerous
family-oriented attractions. (Presque Isle is a magnificent
state park and wildlife sanctuary, a natural peninsula that
forms Erie’s shipping and boating harbor on Lake Erie. Its
miles of sandy beaches are quite world-class, but largely
unknown outside the region. The world-famed Chautauqua
Institution is located only a few miles and a few minutes
from Erie’s downtown. The city has Amtrak service and an
international airport.)

The net result of the past few decades, however, has been
increased unemployment (currently over 6%) and a sense of
dislocation for those out work. Especially worrying to
community officials is the possibility that General Electric
might pull out its major diesel locomotive facility (one of the
world's largest) entirely, thus leaving about 3000 highly-paid
workers suddenly unemployed.

Two national news stories have just featured Erie and its
circumstances. A Wall Street Journal story has examined the
major influx of refugees in Erie County and city In the past four
years, 3400 refugees from Asia, Mexico, South America, and the
Middle East have settled in the city itself, the largest number
in any medium-sized American city. The story was in response
to President Trump’s cutting back immigration from 100,000 to
50,000, and discussed mostly positively the impact of such a large
inflow of refugees. Erie’s welcoming spirit, however, is nothing
new, as it took in Irish, German, Italian, Polish and Jewish
immigrants in the late 19th century and early 20th century
(including my grandparents). In the late 1930s and early 1940s,
many refugees from Hitler’s aggression in Europe also found a
haven and work in Erie County.

A second news story was broadcast on CBS News, and suggested
Erie was like a sinking ship. What was shown was a very
one-sided view of Erie’s current circumstances. The images were
correct, but CBS chose not to show other images that were also
accurate, but more positive.  This has predictably upset not only
the local chamber of commerce, but  also many local residents
who are part of a  big effort to transform Erie in the 21st century.
In fact, the true story about Erie is that its problems are not as bad
as the CBS story purported to show, nor are they as easily solved
as perhaps the chamber of commerce and elected officials would
like them to be.

On balance, however, the City has many more reasons to be hopeful
about the future than not. The reason for this are the many resources
it already has. As I already have mentioned, these resources include
a long and positive record as an historical and innovative city, very
unusual new community tools for recovery, and an excellent
geographical location with extraordinary tourist and convention

Just as examples, Erie County beyond its urban area is a major
agricultural part of the state, producing quality vegetable, fruit and
livestock products. It is one of the largest grape producing counties
in the U.S. (Welch’s), and in recent decades has engendered
numerous notable wine-producing vineyards. In recent years a
major race track and casino opened, drawing visitors from
all over the region, as does the Millcreek Mall, one of the nation’s
largest shopping malls. It has an historic amusement park with a
famous roller coaster, a nationally-recognized zoo, a large water
sports park, more than 25 museums, a stunning new lakefront
convention center, and a renovated historic public dock with new
hotels and boating facilities. It is a city with many public parks.
Three interstate highways pass through or terminate in its urban
area, as do major rail freight lines. Three national airlines use
its airport which recently added an extended new runway that can
accommodate the largest planes. It now has several colleges and
universities, including the largest medical school in the U.S. It has
good restaurants and coffeehouses, as well as multiple professional
theaters and ballet/modern dance companies, and a respected
professional philharmonic orchestra. Broadway show touring
companies and the nation's most popular music entertainers appear
in Erie regularly. It has minor league professional baseball, ice
hockey, basketball and soccer teams with a new baseball stadium
and sports arena.

Does this sound like a sinking ship to you?

Nevertheless, Erie does have problems. It needs aggressive and
imaginative development of its new non-manufacturing industries.
It needs to promote its considerable tourist facilities as it has not
done before. It must find ways to use its educational institutions
to train and re-train workers for jobs that will be needed ahead.
It must restructure its tax base, and find new ways to attract
regional business.

I know that some who are reading this are thinking I am just
indulging in mere hometown pride. But I am realistic. In the
past, truth be told, Erie and its leaders often acted with
parochial short-sightedness. Some great economic opportunities
were passed over and lost. These occurred, however, in eras of
constant natural growth. Today, that boundless growth and public
confidence is, at least temporarily, stalemated all over the nation.
The so-called “rust belt” of which Erie is a part is having the
most difficult time of adjusting and transforming. Now civic
leadership is vital as never before.

Erie is not a sinking ship, but it is not sailing under full power.
Innovation, hard-working new immigrants, and not a little civic
pride can be the fuel which repairs the latter. The Wall Street
story was a fair piece; the CBS News story was just another
example of the poor job the established media these days is
often performing in providing with accuracy the news which is
actually happening.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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