Last fall, it seemed as though one could not peruse any local media outlet without being besieged by the noisy twists and turns of the proposed Erie Community College issue, mainly because it was so multifaceted. Not only was it an educational issue, but also a workforce development issue, an economic issue, a jurisdictional issue, and an election issue. At its zenith, it seemed like an idea whose time had come; the movement for a community college in Erie County acquired vibrancy in business circles and broad support amongst area employers that soon gave it a life of its own.
Last summer, GE Transportation President and CEO Lorenzo Simonelli sent a letter to the Erie County Council endorsing the community college proposal. A GE-commissioned study claims they support one in 11 jobs in Erie County—on top of the 3,600 people directly employed here—and even meager changes in those numbers have a broad effect on the county’s economy. GE’s support of the community college was viewed as the shining star in the constellation of local luminaries supporting the proposal; some privately wondered if Erie’s failure to embrace GE’s wishes might spell trouble in the future.
The community college initiative finally passed in a 5-4 vote by the Erie School District. Erie would be getting its community college, or so everyone thought. Days later, board member Eva Tucker changed his vote, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for community college backers. Tucker cited funding concerns as his motivation at the time.
This was not the first, nor the last crippling failure in the effort to find a sponsor. Before the Erie School District’s flip-flop, Erie County Council did the same thing, initially approving but later roadblocking the measure. After Tucker’s switch, a similar pitch to the Corry Area School Board was tabled—placed in limbo, neither alive nor dead, but not moving forward. All of a sudden, this once vibrant movement, now mortally wounded, went on life support.
Both the victors and the vanquished crawled back to their corners, nursing their tender victory or their temporary setback. Since then, it has been awfully quiet- that thick quiet you can almost feel, like when there is a person right behind you, plotting, planning, preparing; a person that you can feel without seeing, a quiet you can hear without hearing.
It was that quiet, until a seemingly-unrelated bomb shattered the silence in May: General Electric’s Transportation Division announced plans to build a new locomotive plant in Texas. While correlation is not causation, this led to speculation that suggested a relationship between the two issues.
“General Electric’s decision to expand our manufacturing footprint [in Texas] and complement what we do in Erie has nothing to do with the proposed community college,” said Stephan Koller, director of communications and public affairs at GE Transportation. However, Koller then went on to say “The need and the desire are still there, but the question is, ‘is this the right time to pursue it?’”
So, is this the right time to pursue it? Is it being pursued? Who is doing the pursuing? Good questions, all. Despite having almost every single major player in this community come out in support of the proposed community college, there was no bigger proponent than newly-elected Erie County Executive Barry Grossman. I figured that if anybody knew the answer to these questions, it would be him. But that would necessitate a trip downtown, to the Erie County Courthouse.
Heading to the courthouse on West Sixth Street is not usually a pleasant experience. The physical environment is pleasant enough, as far as courthouses go. There are better, but there are worse. The stately grey stone columns out front evoke feelings of strength and permanence, in stark contrast to the offices within, which cater to the frail and transitory. Blank-faced litigants congregate in the corridor near the ground floor elevator, awaiting their call. No one ever looks happy here, probably because there are never any real winners here. Many of these folks are dressed for work, wondering if they’d rather be at work or in court.
County Executive Barry Grossman’s fifth floor office was neat and tidy. Cheery, even. As I sat in the his reception area—after being attended to by his lovely and talented staff—I could hear a tinny, tiny mono office radio somewhere in the background forcing out the strains of the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” As is sometimes the case, I just do what the voices in the radio tell me to do, and Don Henley was imploring me not to get caught up in the same old situation others before me have – this story was covered in detail when it was topical, and new ground was not to be broken here, not today, not by me.
My discussion with Mr. Grossman would center on the past, present, and future of the proposed community college and consist solely of opinions from an unabashed supporter thereof; however, we did cover some interesting, unanticipated ground. Age Discrimination, for one. Entitlement. Pleasant Ridge. Nothing about that polygamy joke on Wikipedia a few weeks back though.
In all fairness, I tried to get the opinions of those who were supposedly against the community college, but I could not get a single one to respond. Perhaps it was a scheduling issue. Perhaps too short of a notice. Perhaps holiday weekend travel plans. Perhaps messages were lost in the system. Perhaps their secretaries could take a few classes at the local community college on phone etiquette, or computers, or something…Oh, wait, never mind—we don’t have one. I’m not going to call any of these people out by name, but I eagerly extend the offer to anyone so inclined: give me the other side of this story, either privately, in the comments section on the website, or preferably in an on-the-record interview like the one Mr. Grossman granted me. I’ll gladly publish whatever I can.
We started the interview at 10:30, right on time, in Grossman’s office. It was devoid of clutter and knick-knacks. The atmosphere was placid and tranquil as I sank back in the comfy leather chair and fired away.
CV: As you were running for office, what lead you to believe that a community college was needed in Erie County?
BG: It’s needed because there are 14 community colleges in Pennsylvania and the only place unserved is Northwestern Pennsylvania. They’re not only working well everywhere else, they’re growing at a phenomenal rate. If you put a map of the United States up on the board, and you plotted all of the community colleges, you would find that Northwestern Pennsylvania is probably the largest population cluster in America unserved by a community college. That is startling.
CV: So why do we need one here? Just because we’re unserved doesn’t necessarily mean we need to be.
BG: What’s happened is, in the Northwest particularly…this is not about kids at 18 going on to school. This is about displaced workers, which we have an abundance of in the northwest. What do you tell a welder who has three little children, [and] he wants to become a med-tech? You tell them to go to some private school, and pony up $30,000? It’s not going to happen. So that’s the person I’m concerned about. We’re cheating that person in Northwestern Pennsylvania.
CV: Aside from retraining the unemployed and the underemployed, are there other segments of the community that you think are unserved in that respect?
BG: We’re cheating returning GIs, coming back from the service—22, that’s the age most people start thinking about going back to school, mid-20s-and [that’s] besides the high school graduates who were never meant for four year colleges. So there’s a whole population being underserved in this area that I think needs attention.
CV: And what did you do to try to generate that attention?
BG: Spent about half of my waking hours for a year doing it [laughing]…but don’t get me wrong, it didn’t start with me. My predecessor Mark DiVecchio supported it. The chamber of commerce invested very strongly in the community college drive, the Erie Community Foundation ponied up a million dollars- all of the key organizations, every major employer- pleaded with us to get this done. So I mean, when General Electric tells you they need it, when Lord [Corporation] tells you they need it, Hamot, St. Vincent, all the major employers, and we turn our back on it, then shame on us.
CV: These are all good points, but it seems like this idea has been stuck in the system for some time now. Why did it fail last time?
BG: My analogy is this – I think what we see going on in our community is a form of discrimination, but it’s not what people think it is. It’s age discrimination.
CV: Age discrimination?
BG: We have too many elderly people, like myself, in office, making decisions, who are not plugged in to the needs of young people. If you look at the people that held this up, whether they were in Erie County Council, Erie School Board, or the Corry School Board, they tend to all be over 60 years of age. So they are listening to their peers and being ignorant of the needs of young people.
CV: And why should they not be? Young people do not vote as often as the elderly, and their concerns are often lost in the shuffle. And we all tend to vote our own self-interests, so why should older folks support a community college in Erie?
BG: I’m disappointed in a lot of our elderly community. I’m disappointed because they are crying about, you know, this is an imposition on them, yet they have social security, they have retirement plans, they have Medicare, they have senior discounts. It’s the young people in our community that are suffering. And this is what we have to draw attention to. The elderly community, and I’m one of them, have got to wake up and understand, if we don’t help the young people, we’re not going to have anything left to support us in our elderly age. The young people are the ones working and paying taxes.
CV: Regarding the elderly community, last fall, I heard you on James R. & Barry Dane’s radio program on AM 1400, and I remember you mentioning that your grandparents were immigrants who came to the United States to forge a better life for their children and grandchildren, not necessarily for themselves. Do you think people still have that attitude?
BG: My grandparents were immigrants. The immigrant community that you still see around feels that way. I talk to newly arrived immigrants, and they will tell me, we’re here for our children and our grandchildren. They left disparaging situations just to come here, knowing their lives wouldn’t be that much better, but they’re thinking of their children and grandchildren.
CV: I also remember you saying that you felt like that spirit, of grandparents and parents making life better for their children, has been lost among Americans. Why do you think that is?
BG: What’s happened is, those children and grandchildren of my grandparents have grown up. And now they’ve developed a sense of entitlement. They no longer think of themselves as pioneers, but people who are entitled to things, and I think they’ve lost that spirit of, you want the world to come after you to be better than the world you left. And I think we have to get that back.
CV: What do you think happens as a result of losing that spirit?
BG: We had county council that defeated this 4 to 2, and yet this same county council was willing and talking about spending as much as $60 million on an old age home for people who, there are probably not 30 people who will benefit from it, because the other facilities will take them, yet they think nothing of doing that. This is why you see our community being driven by elderly concerns and elderly needs to the detriment of young people. It concerns me greatly.
CV: Is the idea of a community college in Erie dead?
BG: Nobody’s giving up this idea. We want to make sure that when we bring it back, we have all of our ducks in order.
CV: So what is the next step?
BG: I think the next step is that we have got to convince this community that we desperately need a community college.
CV: From what I could tell, a significant portion of the opposition last time around cited the potential tax consequences of such a venture as compelling enough reason to voice that opposition. What do you think of these concerns?
BG: Taxpayers have to understand they’re already paying for community college. This vast community college network in Pennsylvania, 14 schools, they’re all being helped by taxpayers from Erie County. We’re sending this money to Harrisburg that would be coming back to us, but instead it’s going everywhere else. So the notion that we can’t take any more taxes or burden, it’s really a silly one because we’re already supporting the system and not benefitting from it. So I think that argument has to be made. We have to do a better job of telling people that they are paying for this already.
CV: If our readers only take one thing away from this conversation, what should that be?
BG: That this is going to help the community not hurt the community. That this is going to help keep companies here, and this is going to help keep young people here.
CV: I’m not much of a journalist. My editor keeps telling me I need a local hook, a twist at the end of my story, or some sort of personal anecdote. Can you help me out here?
BG: E.J. Dionne, Jr., who writes for the Washington Post, and is syndicated in the Erie Times, was here and spoke to the Jefferson Society, and a bunch of us hosted him for dinner, and I was sitting next to him. It was right after I was inaugurated. He looked at me during dinner, and said ‘Well, Grossman, what was the big issue in your campaign?’ and I said, ‘The community college.’ And he said, ‘Really! What’s wrong with your community college?’ And I said, ‘We don’t have one.’ I’ll never forget this as long as I live – he dropped his fork, some food dribbled out of his mouth, he stared at me incredulously and said, ‘What? You don’t have a community college? There’s three in the county I live in.’ That’s the message we have to get across – that we are dinosaurs in this, and we are really paying the price for this.”
Cory Vaillancourt is a brilliant writer/complete hack and can be complimented/heckled at cVaillancourt@ErieReader.com.
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