Out of the Mist: The Perry 200 Commemoration Begins

Category:  Features
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012 at 9:03 AM
Out of the Mist: The Perry 200 Commemoration Begins by Ben Speggen

 This best begins with two stories, one true and one purely fictional, but both Mythical glimpses of history and legend, of future and potential in nature of what was, what is, and what might be. 

Once upon a time, a story unfolds a the bay on Lake Erie. After convincing the federal government that Erie—not Buffalo—should be the site where the fleet that would one day shape our country’s future ought be built, Captain Daniel Dobbins takes charge of building it. Next, enter our hero: Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the strapping young lad who then commands that fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie, and in a valiant moment of glory, implores: “Dont Give Up the Ship,” as he crosses from the foundering Lawrence to the mighty Flagship Niagara. He later declares: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Once upon another time, a story takes place in Scotland. Tommy and Jeff, fresh from New York, head off to a small village for a game-hunting adventure. But on their first night, the two men lose their way, only to hear music coming from a town not on their map. They set out in the direction of the music only to find a town that appears just once every hundred years, where the townspeople come out of the mist, resume the life they had known, and celebrate their town and their lives as they once had in an attempt to improve the town before night falls and they’re whisked back into the mist. It’s a love story as the New Yorker of today falls for a Scottish lass of yesteryear. 

That town—from the musical of the same name—is Brigadoon, and 200 years after our first story, Dr. William Garvey says that this is Erie’s Brigadoon moment, as our region looks to reconnect with its past while forging its bright future.

“What it’s about is rebirth, and that’s the key to this whole thing,” says Garvey of his vision for the Perry 200 Commemoration in light of that musical. “Erie owes its progress to the Battle of Lake Erie. The Battle of Lake Erie is when Erie made the national stage when it was only a small town.”

The Perry 200 Commemoration Commission, a special commission consisting of nearly 90 members of the Erie region, officially opened the first chapter on its 2-year-long story Monday, April 30 with a ceremony and a coordinated flag raising that steered in the “Launch Season.” The commission, led by General Chairs Dr. Garvey and former Erie Mayor Joyce Savocchio, is comprised of representatives selected from all segments of the community, and the Jefferson Educational Society is piloting the way. 

The Jefferson Educational Society, born three-and-a-half years ago, serves as Erie’s think tank for community progress. Think tanks fuel community engagement, often in areas such as social policy, political strategy, economics, military history, and technology issues. With 1,800 think tanks across the country, the Jefferson, according to Garvey, who serves as its president, used the Brookings Institute as the model. The Jefferson aims, according to its mission statement, “to bring community progress through education and research activities,” and “intends to follow the examined truth wherever it leads and is neither liberal nor conservative, democrat nor republican in philosophy or in action.”

“These types of think tanks usually have scholars in-residence whose job it is to deliver lectures, research issues, write books on contemporary issues to bring light where there is darkness or light where there is murkiness,” Garvey says. 

“And to where there’s heat,” adds Ferki Ferati, the executive director of the JES, suggesting the Jefferson isn’t afraid to tackle controversial issues.

“Ours is not a national agenda. Ours is a regional agenda, which is to center itself on the progress of Northwestern Pennsylvania, Erie County,  and more particularly the city, the urban area of Erie,” Garvey says. “What we call the Erie area. We devote ourselves to looking at issues and problems that impact our area although we have a national focus. A lot of our lectures are on national and international issues.”

“We do that more than the Brookings would do. In terms of lectures, we take after the 92nd Street Y and Aspen Institute and TED.org,” Ferati adds. “We studied about 10-15 different kinds of think tanks around the country and we took their best parts. One of the best descriptions I ever heard from one of our students was: ‘The Jefferson is the feed your mind kind of place,’ which I’ve always remembered because it gets to the heart of the issue.”

When the Jefferson began in 2008, an average of 12 people were enrolled per class. In its most recent term, the average class size ballooned to 56 students, proving that Erie thirsts for knowledge and can support such an organization. They charge $10 per class, and offer a plethora of free programs.

The Jefferson is always moving, we’re always trying new things,” says Ferati. “We just introduced a debate series; we’re doing more tours around this region. We’ve always worked to get the interest of more and more people.”

In getting the attention and piquing the interest of more people, the Jefferson stays true to its core belief that an informed citizenry leads to a stronger community. 

“The basic key you need to understand if you’re going to understand the Jefferson is that we believe community progress comes essentially from information, from an informed group of citizens who will pursue progressive ideas and support progressive ideas,” Garvey elaborates. “And we think Erie, in some ways, has a time warp, in a sense that it’s sort of stuck, and it needs to move toward the future in a more dramatic way, and therefore, it needs to have the support of a progressive group of citizens who are thinking people who will support progressive ideas. We are not about pushing an agenda; we’re about rallying people who are interested in civic issues and who will support civic progress. And so all these courses are intended on bringing people together who are interested in learning, people who can find support with each other in terms of moving this community forward. So the whole purpose of the think tank is to move the community forward through studying, through information.” 

When endeavoring to move the community forward, looking back at the past is necessary, and that’s where our first story falls into place.

“We’re doing the War of 1812 and Battle of Lake Erie Commemoration because it’s really the start of our community—it’s our birth,” says Ferati. “Erie was a town of less than 500 people in 1812. The spring of 1813 brought the building of the fleet, brought the army, brought people to the city. That’s how the city started.”

The building of that fleet, Ferati adds, left a foundation for a city behind. But in the grand scope of things, how significant is the War of 1812? Does the average person know who was fighting in the war, let alone who won?

That’s where history can be a bit complicated—depending on where you ask that question. If you ask it while walking the streets in Toronto, Canadians will tell you they won. If you pose it while strutting the streets of London, the British will tell you they claimed victory. And if you inquire about the War of 1812 while ambling the streets of Erie, Americans will tell you “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” er, that they came out champions.

Garvey, a man steeped in history, points out that the Canadians view themselves as victors because they staved off three American invasions, thus not becoming part of the colonies; the British, who didn’t lose anything in the war since Canada remained part of the United Kingdom, can claim victory as well; and Americans, who stood up boldly to the Brits and closed the final chapter of the American Revolution, can chalk up a victory because they remained independent. 

But why get excited over all of that?

“There’s no clear cut victory and nothing changed. But it did change. Canada existed; England and America never fought again. A special relationship between the two countries continues right up to the present time,” Garvey explains. “In addition to that, which is even more significant, the young country experienced a burst of nationalism that followed the War of 1812. That produced a period of prosperity—the Era of Good Feelings. The country really expanded and moved toward its destiny. So the war really had value, but not the way most wars have.”

“We’re calling [The Perry 200] a commemoration because we want to commemorate the fact that England, America, and Canada from that point on became good neighbors,” Garvey explains. “So we’re celebrating 200 years of peace.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve celebrated the Commodore. In 1913, Erie celebrated by raising the Brig Niagara from Presque Isle’s Misery Bay to display Perry’s flagship at the public dock every day of the celebration. The Centennial included five different parades, a grand illumination of Perry Square, and a fantastic fireworks display. 

But the pomp and circumstance weren’t all the cause for celebration brought to the city. Erie took the opportunity to reinvent itself and renew its identity with the swell of civic pride. The “Father of American Urban Planning,” John Nolen, was brought to Erie to design plans for a “Greater Erie.” His vision for that Greater Erie, “The Nolen Plan,” as it came to be known, recommended Erie create new patterns for city zoning and parks. Nolen emphasized the significance of the Bayfront and noted it as the city’s “crown jewel,” reporting that it belonged not just to railroads and shipyards but to the entire community, saying, “The final word in city planning is not its effect on business or commerce, but upon the increasing mass of humans beings who must live and work in cities.”

Fifty years later, Erie took to celebrating again. A cast of 600 actors performed “From These Shores,” a series of sketches capturing Erie’s history and culture, and an on-stage recreation of the Battle of Lake Erie, complete with fireworks, closed the performances.

Again, the pomp and circumstance weren’t all the cause for celebration brought to the city . Erie saw another chance to seize its future. A group of Erie businessmen hired Maurice Rotival, internationally renowned planner, to draft a vision for revitalizing Erie. Rotival saw Erie as, “a modern, commercial, and cultural center serving Northwestern Pennsylvania,” with a Bayfront Expressway, and a future built around the waterfront. He also envisioned a revitalized downtown. 

“These were more than just fireworks and celebrating,” Garvey said. “They were occasions for renewal. Hence the connection to ‘Brigadoon:’ renewal, the rediscovery.”

While the Launch Season—the season aimed at educating the population about its history in order to rouse a sense of civic pride—is now fully underway, this all builds to the Sailing Season—the season aimed at celebrating who we were in the face of who we can become. But if the commemoration stopped with only that pomp and circumstance, it’d be living up to only half of what those previous celebrations accomplished.

While establishing the need for a new plan, a new way for Erie to rejuvenate itself, Ferati found a grant online through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), where $100 million was being set aside for sustainable development grants and challenge grants for communities across America for use to reassess their environments to find out what ways they could foster economic development. The Jefferson came together with the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership and Erie County Government to draft a proposal, and in doing so, became one of the 29 places to receive funds. Erie now sits with $1.8 million to shape the vision for the next 50 years. 

“Dr. Garvey told me that we need a plan to come out of the celebration, and we had talked to WRT [Wallace, Robert, and Todd, a national collaborative practice of city and regional planners, urban designers, landscape architects, and architects] about it raising the money locally. It was hard because it was going to be between $750-900-thousand just for the plan,” explains Ferati. “Looking for grants online, and I ran across a $100 million pot. It was a long shot. Five-hundred places applied for it. Twenty-nine were awarded. Erie was one of those 29, with $1.8 million.

“We wanted also to see more than just a festival and a couple of events. A lot of the places in the nation are doing a couple of events. We wanted to see a whole 2 years worth of celebration and in fact educate the community in what happened in the Battle of Lake Erie.” 

“We looked around and saw that no one was doing this,” Garvey adds. “We didn’t necessarily want to do it, we wanted to see it done—especially we wanted to see the plan done. The Jefferson’s role is to get good things started that will improve this town, and then to get others involved to carry it out.”

With the proposal accepted and the grant on its way to Erie, the principal players involved—the Jefferson, the County, the Erie Regional Chamber & Growth Partnership, the City of Erie, and the Regional Center for Workforce Excellence—needed a point person, someone to manage the project, acting as a liaison through the process, and seeing that the vision plan would take shape as an action plan in due time.

Enter Michael Fuhrman, project manager.

Fuhrman says multiple times that he believes in momentum but that he doesn’t believe in destiny.  But even someone who doesn’t believe in destiny must acknowledge what’s at play here—maybe serendipity.

Fuhrman, who had his bags all but packed after leaving Mercyhurst University as the director of the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center in December following 23 years of service, had polished the résumé and had sent out job applications after recognizing the lack of jobs in his career field in Erie. He didn’t want to leave. He and his wife grew up here, enjoyed it here, had tended to roots that had grown here, and had history here. It had been a great run, he admits, but they had to look for a new place for a fresh start.

Then the phone rang. It was the Erie County Executive Barry Grossman. He wanted to have lunch to talk to Fuhrman about a new project—a grant they had received. It was a chance to catch up with a friend, and chance to cash in on a free lunch, so Fuhrman went. But there was more than lunch and chitchat. There was a box. A box filled with materials relating to this grant. And then there was the grant itself, in need of someone to administer it, tend to it, manage it. 

The phone rang again, but this time it was Fuhrman making the calls. He contacted other people operating similar projects. Excitement began to build and suddenly he found himself needing to sit down with the most important person in the situation—his wife. She was happy to hear of the prospect and happy that the chance to remain in Erie presented itself. But she still scratched her head. What do you know about planning? Fair question, Fuhrman acknowledges. But then again, what had he known about running a performing arts center before he muscled up to that challenge? Life’s about taking shots, and Fuhrman, with the support of his wife, was ready to take another one.

His connection to Erie history—the love, appreciation, and understanding—came when he helped run Erie city’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1994-95. This was a strong enough foundation to begin helping in the building of Erie’s latest vision of itself nearly 20 years later.  

“It’s a 3-year run—the grant that the county received, which is a 3-year project with threephases,” says Fuhrman. “At the end of those three years, we’ll have good ideas. We’ll have a strong action plan and from that point on, it’s really, ‘Can the Erie stakeholders bring to bear enough resources to move their vision forward in an action plan?’” 

That action plan will be the next Nolen and Rotival plan—if we can capitalize on the building momentum.

“In 2013, Erie finds itself emerged from its slumber prepared again to do a master plan of the region to find out where we want to go for the next 50 years,” Fuhrman says. “Both the Nolen and the Rotival are distinctively different, but they are similar. They’re similar in the sense that there was a firm that came from outside of Erie that came to town, drilled for information, did massive surveys and questionnaires, talked to significant stakeholders, and then after they assessed it, they wrote a plan and said, ‘This is how we see your community. This is through our lens that we see you and these are the things we think you should put in place. And they were both very structural in nature, widening streets, working on infrastructure and transportation, providing spacious playgrounds—very architectural. And then they left. 

“The city then decided, ‘Okay, we will take this plan and select the things that we think we can move forward.’ And they did that.”

So how will the new plan differ from this course of outsiders hearing our siren song, visiting our denizens of the Lake Erie mist, and then leaving as night casts its shadow and haze envelopes us once again? 

The Philadelphia-based firm, WRT, while still from the outside, won’t merely observe and then direct before leaving. The fundamental differences, as Fuhrman, puts it is that they will “come to our community and work with the stakeholders to shape the region the way we see the region we want to have, opposed to them coming in and saying ‘This is how we see your community, here’s the plan, thanks very much, good luck.’ That’s not how this is going to work. This is basically value-based capacity building that you, as an individual can come to these meetings, stakeholders, whether they’re running universities, hospitals, private industries, social service, public officials—these are the regional stakeholders that basically come to the table and basically say, ‘This is how I’d like to see us work. These are the problems; how do we resolve them?’ So it’s community-based. That’s a fundamental difference.”

This would be where the naysayers try to stall the momentum. Three years? For just an idea? No tangible, visible end result after three years as we slip back into the fog of time with things unchanged from when we last walked our streets for a day?

“It’s very challenging, and it’s a tough sell,” Fuhrman admits. “When you tell people, ‘I’m working on a plan,’ that’s a tough sell. I could sell the arts because I believed in the arts, I was in the arts as a professional, so I could really sell that and I was behind that. Transferring that belief, the big question I always have is: Can Erie change? That’s really the ultimate question. Sometimes people change because they’ve had a traumatic experience in their lives. They lost a job, or something traumatic happened. That forces them to step back and say, ‘Let’s reassess the situation.’ A lot of people come out of that really well but some don’t. Not that Erie’s had a traumatic experience, but let’s be realistic: it’s tough economics. We’re one of the few communities in the state of Pennsylvania that doesn’t have a community college, the unemployment rate—although it’s better here than it is in some areas in the country—it’s a challenging time for Erie.”

Fuhrman sees leadership as one of his primary aspirations to come out of this grant. He believes finding good leadership will enable Erie to move forward toward a brighter future. But first, he’ll have to identity the vision of Erie dreamt up by the stakeholders, as this project moves forward.  

Fuhrman will host two public kickoff meetings: May 22 at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and May 23 at the Intermediate Unit in Edinboro. Both meetings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Before those meetings, Fuhrman will send out a press release the week of May 14 announcing the project team and the name of the grant. The release will also ask for public involvement and the website for the grant will be unveiled. 

“We want to reach everybody in the county,” Fuhrman implores. “I can’t stress that enough: This is a regional grant so we’ll ask all the region participants to come together and make this thing happen.” 

Making sure things do happen and that there’s follow-through from all of those involved with the grant, a steering committee—comprised of representatives from Erie County, the Chamber, the Regional Center for Workforce Excellence, City of Erie, and the Jefferson—sits at the top. Below the steering committee is the Consortium Leadership Team comprised of Project Management Team Members, Working Group Chairs and Vice Chairs, Community Representatives from the private sector, businesses, townships, and boroughs.

The nature of the HUD grant determines the need for six principles of livability: Infrastructure, Environment, House and Neighborhoods, Community Engagement, Economic Development, and Community Facilities. Those are chaired by Erie MPO, Lake Erie Regional Conservancy, the Housing Authority of the City of Erie, Erie Community Foundation, the Chamber, and the Jefferson are chairing those subcommittees, respectively. The chairs, Fuhrman says, are people who live in Erie, people who are experts in these particular fields. The firm, WRT, will augment this structure by bringing in experts from around the country to work specifically with those chairs.

“It is really important that the public realize that this is not an ‘Erie’ plan; this is a ‘regional’ plan,” Fuhrman reiterates. “You’re looking at Erie County, but you’re also looking at those communities that are bordering Erie, such as Ashtabula, Chautauqua, Warren, and Crawford. These are all regional resources that will be plugged into the mix, so that when we market ourselves as a community, we’re not going to say ‘Come to Erie and do business with us.’ We’re going to say ‘Come to this region because this is what we have to offer as a region.’”

And as for Fuhrman’s role as project manager: “I’m the person who will be interfacing specifically with the consultant and the contractors that they’ll bring in. I’ll be working specifically with the six working groups, and I’ll be working with the steering committee.” Erie’s MPO, Fuhrman notes, will be responsible for interfacing with HUD to ensure guidelines are being followed as the work is carried out.

Fuhrman then poses the most pertinent question: “Will there be, through the germination of all this, people who will rise to the challenge?” He pauses to think. “That’s going to be question that needs to be answered in the process of putting this grant together, putting this vision together. Can we reach across tables to build this? We can all agree that planning is a part of life. You plan to come here. Sometimes we plan what we wear, we plan for our wedding, some people plan for their funeral, planning is a part of moving forward. I think it is an appropriate time for Erie to plan for its future.”

“Each day there are new challenges,” he adds. “But what drives me is that we come around once in a lifetime, and I think we all can agree Erie is at a point where it can live up to its potential.”

Co-chairing the Perry 200 Commemoration Commission with eyes set both on the past and on the future, Garvey suggests that that potential begins with a long hard look in the mirror. 

“We were using the moment to arouse civic pride—that’s what the Battle of Lake Erie has always been: An occasion for the city to reinvent itself,” Garvey says of the duties on the Perry 200 Commission. “Every community needs a moment to reinvent itself. And Erie, because of the great pride it took from its moment on the national stage, it has used that moment to reinvent itself.”

Garvey furthers this notion as he continually references a John Quincy Adams quote: “We are what we were. And if we don’t discover who we were,” he adds, “we never find out who we are. We need to recover our history. In from it comes civic pride; from civic pride comes enthusiasm about becoming something more than what we are.” 

With that notion, the momentum’s in full swing. The think tank started the initiative with the hope of improving the community, and now more players are involved, helping steer the ship toward its best course.

Although Fuhrman swears he doesn’t believe in destiny, something’s at play here. Call it stars aligning, call it worlds shifting, call it coincidence, call it a Mythical Scottish town, far, far away, where Tommy returns after the celebration ends and the ghosts have all disappeared back into the mist. “Why do people have to lose things to find out what they really mean?” he asks to the wind. Suddenly the music returns and an old friend awakened by Tommy’s love and passion tells him: “You shouldn’t be too surprised. I told you when you love someone deeply enough, anything is possible. Even miracles.”

Erie has the chance to grab its future by the reigns, and with the Perry 200 Commission ready to lead the way, members of this region, this county, and this city can all look into the mirror and proclaim: “We have seen the future, and it is ours.” Call it destiny, stars aligning, worlds shifting, coincidence, miracle, or Brigadoon—there’s something in the air, and these winds sing of the legends of the past and the potential of the future. 

Erie Reader: Vol. 6, No. 22
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At a venue named Erie Playhouse

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