Emerge 2040 Readies for Action

Category:  Features
Wednesday, August 19th, 2015 at 8:45 AM
Emerge 2040 Readies for Action by Dan Schank

It's difficult to generate excitement about hypotheticals. Concrete results are always more inspiring than proposals and planning committees. In Erie, where we face a declining population, an eroding manufacturing sector, and concentrated poverty, it's understandably difficult to imagine a brighter future – let alone the years of heavy-lifting required to make it a reality.

When the Destination Erie project began in 2012, it faced some unique challenges from a public relations perspective. On the one hand, its plan for sustainable development offered a real opportunity to strengthen connections between the people who live here and our region's top business, nonprofit, and political leadership. On the other hand, the regional plan was three years in the making, outlined a twenty-five year strategy for our region, and required an awful lot of faith and patience on the part of the public.

But the planning stage has finally ended. Destination Erie has transitioned into Emerge 2040: A Focused Partnership for the Erie Region's Future. Instead of identifying local strengths and weaknesses, Emerge 2040 will face a tougher challenge – making positive change a reality in our community. Since there are a number of important, pragmatic projects currently in motion, this article will focus more on what's emerging currently than what's expected to be done by 2040.

Lake Erie Quadrangle National Marine Sanctuary

One of our region's strongest selling points is undoubtedly Lake Erie. We fish and swim in it. We sail on it. We admire it as we jog through Presque Isle State Park. We enjoy its cool breeze during our idyllic, all-too-short summers.

But we also focus on its surface more than its watery depths. Which is a shame, because 132 identified shipwrecks lie at its bottom in Pennsylvania alone, many of which provide important ecosystems for our marine life. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (better known by its more evocative acronym, NOAA) has begun accepting applications from communities across the country looking for consideration as national marine sanctuaries, and we're about to submit one.

In accordance with the Emerge 2040 plan, Erie will recommend that “a 759-square-mile area in the Pennsylvania waters of Lake Erie” should become the Lake Erie Quadrangle National Marine Sanctuary, according to the City Council resolution that approved the measure. The application also has the support of the Erie County Council, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, and Gov. Tom Wolf.

So what could a marine sanctuary mean for those of us who live here year round (and whose interest in scuba diving is, at best, limited)? Increased tourism is always welcome – more local businesses could capitalize on the wreckage, and perhaps a few of us might have an underwater adventure ourselves. There's also the historical relevance. In addition to our region's crucial role in the War of 1812, Lake Erie was one of the most active freshwater fishing sites in the world during the late 19th/early 20th century. Much of that history is still submerged in the lake's bottom – and maintaining its form with far greater longevity than it would find in saltwater.

In accordance with the Emerge 2040 plan, Erie will recommend that “a 759-square-mile area in the Pennsylvania waters of Lake Erie” should become the Lake Erie Quadrangle National Marine Sanctuary.

Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper is particularly excited about the sanctuary's potential as an educational resource. She recently traveled to Alpena, Mich., home of NOAA's Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary on Lake Huron, where she discovered that schoolchildren were “starting to do robotics in very, very young grades – and carrying [those experiences] all through high school.” Students near to the sanctuary are making use of remote operated vehicles (or ROVs) that monitor the lake's bottom in search of undiscovered wrecks, artifacts, and other curiosities.

For example, six students at Northern Michigan's Stockbridge High School recently traveled to the Republic of Palau in the South Pacific to help explore the wreckage of WWII-era ships and planes. Using ROV technology, they hope to identify the remains of American soldiers who are still listed as missing in action. Dahlkemper believes that a similar program in Erie could provide our young people with “a skill set that's unique to our region,” potentially paving the way toward careers with companies like Donjon Marine, or with an organization looking to explore offshore wind energy.

Dahlkemper believes that the official application will be submitted to NOAA by the end of August. If NOAA decides that our case is worthy of greater review, they will begin a two to three year process to assess the opportunities, needs, and level of community support in our region more specifically. If approved, according to Dahlkemper, “we become part of a national system,” funded at the federal level, which can bring international focus to our region without draining precious state and local resources.

Property Improvements and Blight Reduction

Not everything that Emerge 2040 has in the works will cost a great deal of money. In certain cases, they're working to improve awareness about existing resources, rather than devoting time and money to creating new ones.

With that in mind, a working group (with members from the City of Erie, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Erie County Planning Office, and others) has been put together to design a clearinghouse to help property owners “find financial resources to do rehabilitation and make energy efficiency improvements,” according to Emerge 2040 Project Manager Anna Frantz. There are already a number of assistance programs at the state, local, and federal level designed to assist people who need a little help when it comes to home improvements. Too often, property owners aren't aware of them. A clearinghouse would consolidate this information and provide the community with a clear sense of what's available.

Regarding abandoned properties, there is growing support for the establishment of a land bank in our region. Frantz explains the concept concisely: “Right now, when the Erie Redevelopment Authority has a property that has been identified as blighted, it takes a very long time to go through the eminent domain process to obtain legal ownership of the property, and eventually demolish it. A land bank would allow that process to move more quickly.” It should be noted that the bank would only target properties that have been entirely abandoned. This is an effort to rid our community of safety hazards and eyesores – it's not intended to kick anyone out of their homes.

Regional Collaborations

According to Frantz, the planning process that led up to Emerge 2040 was always conceived of as “a public/private/nonprofit partnership” that could maintain independence through collaboration. This meant hearing voices from city and county government, the Jefferson Educational Society, regional business leaders, and the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership – and it also meant avoiding some of the dangers of having one voice drown out all of the others.

One collaborative effort that should generate immediate results is the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority's plan to bring, in County Executive Dahlkemper's words, “regular bus service to Corry before the snow flies this year.” EMTA director Mike Tann was able to reduce some of the use of trollies within the city of Erie and shift some of his resources to Corry without creating additional costs. Now the EMTA “is working with the leadership in Corry to determine where that need is – where people come from and where they need to get to – in Corry,” according to Dahlkemper.

A climate action plan is also in the works. Representatives from Environment Erie, the Sierra Club, the Erie County Department of Planning, and others are looking at the long-term ecological issues facing our community. Keep in mind that climate change may result in weirder weather, rather than just warmer weather. Our changing environment may have a real impact on tourism, fishing, and outdoor recreation. It's essential that we're prepared for the future.

If I've learned anything from writing about Emerge 2040's regional plan over the past several months, it's that long-term planning is as essential as it is unexciting. Change of this sort comes slowly and methodically, through compromise, conflict, and (hopefully) consensus. To move beyond the theoretical purgatory that swallows up too many good ideas in our region, we will need transparency, accountability, and a steady supply of practical achievements. Though things are moving in a positive direction, I'm afraid I don't have a flashy tagline to conclude with. As implementation gathers momentum, I can only hope that Emerge 2040 scores enough early victories to remind us about the value of its larger vision.

Dan Schank can be contacted at dSchank@ErieReader.com.

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