MAYOR JOE SCHEMBER: Build Opportunity. Restore Hope. Transform Erie.

Blog: 9, October 2018
Erie, Pennsylvania

As a lifelong resident and 40-year Banking Professional in the community, I became Mayor of Erie, PA on January 2, 2018. This Bayfront community, nestled in the northwest corner of the Commonwealth, is the fourth largest city in Pennsylvania. With a population of just under 100,000 (MSA population of 280,000), Erie is emerging from the heavy industrial days of the past.

There is a transformation under way in Erie that I have not seen in my lifetime. This transformation includes an incredible optimism and a collaboration between all segments (public, private and non-profit), including the appearance of many high tech entrepreneurs in the downtown.

When I took office, my team and I crafted a vision statement:

“Erie is a Community of Choice. We celebrate our:

  1. Rich diverse cultures
  2. Welcoming and vibrant neighborhoods
  3. World-class downtown and Bayfront
  4. Schools of excellence, and
  5. An abundance of family-sustaining jobs.”

While it may be an over simplification, I firmly believe that the last tenet of our vision, the abundance of family-sustaining jobs, is the key to achieving the other elements of the vision.

Erie’s population, which is 14% African American and 20% immigrants and refugees, has rich diversity. In fact, each month I welcome 50 new Americans from 16 to 24 different countries during the Naturalization Ceremony at the Federal Courthouse. Erie has an exciting diversity of cultures, talents, foods, arts, and perspectives, which brings a great vibe. My grandparents went through the same Naturalization process almost 100 years ago. Had they not come to America, I would not be Mayor of Erie now. New Americans have an incredible work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. They make Erie unique.

We have many welcoming, vibrant neighborhoods, but we also have some challenged with blight and litter. Active neighborhood groups are working toward all residents living in safe, clean, well-lit neighborhoods where they know and value their neighbors. Formation of a new City Land Bank, with funds available through the Erie County Gaming & Revenue Authority from the Erie County Land Bank will speed up the process of eliminating blight.

Our world-class downtown and bayfront are also rapidly transforming. Our bay is breathtaking. The sandy beaches of Presque Isle Peninsula, which forms the bay, gets more visitors in a year than Yellow Stone National Park. Our Port has 176 acres of developable land. I am pushing for things like a 10-year, 100% citywide Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA) program. We firmly believe that the LERTA, coupled with Opportunity Zones, will provide us with the necessary incentives to spur the development of market-rate housing, markets, ethnic shops, local artisan vendors, and businesses unique to Erie.

You are reading this because you are interested in how investing capital gains into Opportunity Zones to realize the tax benefits created by the 2017 Tax Reform Act benefits investors and communities. All of us in Erie are acting fast and decisively to promote Erie’s eight Opportunity Zones, with the support of the non-profit Accelerator for America. There is huge potential in Erie’s low to moderate-income census tracks. Just as the tax legislation intended, we have created Opportunity Zones where small companies can take root and national/international companies can place strategic expansions. There will not be a better time to invest in Erie.

Why invest in Erie?

In 2015, the City of Erie completed its first-ever comprehensive plan – conducted by czb consulting out of Virginia. Ratified by City Council in May 2016, the delivery of Erie Refocused by principal consultant Charles Buki pulled no punches, stating: “There is no doubt some in the community will want an easier, softer way. With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless in the face of resistance to change and be thorough from the very start. By holding onto old ideas the result for Erie will be nil. Half measures will avail Erie nothing because your city is at a turning point.” A true inflection point for the city, community stakeholders coalesced around the document; Erie began seeing tangible signs of investment from our largest anchor institutions.

Erie Insurance Group, a Fortune 500 company and Erie’s largest employer, is now constructing the largest building ever built in Erie: a $135 million expansion of its corporate headquarters. Our two major health networks, University of Pittsburgh Medical College (UMPC) and Allegheny Health Network spending a combined $300 million in capital investments in our two largest hospitals, UPMC Hamot Hospital and Saint Vincent Hospital. Further, Velocity Network, a fiber-optic delivery and leading internet and technology firm in a neighboring municipality announced the relocation and construction of a new downtown headquarters in the middle of our Innovation District.

The Erie Innovation District, seed funded by our local Erie Community Foundation and Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (ECGRA), is located at eighth and State Street in the heart of Erie’s urban core. In partnership with some of our leading anchor institutions, Karl Sanchack, President of the Erie Innovation District has produced amazing results in the district’s first year:

  1. Successfully piloting a Secure, Smart City technology downtown
  2. Bringing nine Start-up Entrepreneurs from three countries and six state to Erie for a 10-week pilot. Five of these new businesses have already committed to staying in Erie!

The unprecedented engagement of the private sector created by Erie Refocused also catalyzed the creation the Erie Downtown Development Corporation (EDDC) and the Erie Equity Fund, dedicated to real estate redevelopment focused on the downtown core. The EDDC, based on the 3CDC model in Cincinnati, Ohio, has raised over $30 million dollars to date and recently announced its first transformational real estate project downtown.

Two additional projects will change the face of the Bayfront. Erie Events (the Erie County Convention Center Authority) has announced a 29-acre, $200 to $300 million Bayfront Place project, which will bring new restaurants, retail, office buildings, a market house, condominiums, a rooftop bar overlooking the bay, and parks to the East Bay Front. Secondly, Scott Enterprises has recently begun construction of a 10-phase, $160 Million dynamic mixed-use development plan, called Harbor Place, on the East Bayfront. Harbor Place will include a hotel, corporate offices, a restaurant, retail shops, a parking garage, condominiums, apartments, a water fountain feature, an outdoor ice skating rink, and, of course, a roof top bar overlooking the bay.

Erie has been losing jobs and population since the late 1960s. Nevertheless, Erie residents remain resilient, hardworking and caring. My team and I describe our mission in six words:

Build Opportunity

Restore Hope

Transform Erie.

There is a new spirit of cooperation and collaboration in Erie, a sense that we are all in this together, and a realization that we are the ones that need to make it happen. We all understand that we are at a pivotal point. We must act now. Opportunity Zones will help us make our vision a reality.

Creating the Opportunity Zone Prospectus

The direction of Erie Refocused supports our vision for Erie. We are committed to ensuring that all community stakeholders remain aligned. With the announcement of the Opportunity Zone program, we worked quickly to pull our request for zone designation together. Once we received approval for our eight census tracts and after attending the Accelerator for America event in Las Vegas, I pulled a team together comprised of city staff and downtown developers to prepare the Opportunity Zone Prospectus. Our goal in this is to help market our community and illustrate how this new investment tool can best be leveraged to revitalize our city. Led by the city’s first-ever business development officer, Brett Wiler, the Investment Prospectus has organized our economic and community development strategy. With the help of Bruce Katz of the New Localism and my cohorts at Accelerator for America, we are developing a compelling document designed to appeal to local, regional, national, and international investors.

The Investment Prospectus is a clear story of the current state of Erie, showcasing the ten year potential that makes Erie, the only port city in Pennsylvania, a Community of Choice.

An abbreviated version of the Investment Prospectus can be found below.