2018 Year in Review
Snuffing out the dumpster fire of disillusionment en route to improvement
Reality (n) — a slap in the face with a cold octopus. At least that's how one New Zealand kayaker might define it. In September, that man took a cephalopod full-on to the noggin, courtesy of a fidgety seal fiddling with its food. Although this incident may have occurred half a world away, it illustrates the need to momentarily pause for introspection. In
In Erie, we began the year questioning the nature of our reality as we tunneled out from the so-called "Snowpocalypse" toward what we thought might be the sun. By the end of the season, a record 198.5 inches of snow had fallen at the Erie International Airport — or so we were led to believe. In a cruel twist of fate, the National Weather Service and a committee of scientists announced that our snowfall totals — although still record-shattering for the City of Erie—were all a lie due to faulty measurements. Having adapted into a sophisticated race of mole-people over the winter (a byproduct of never seeing the sun), Erieites were blinded with indignation when the NWS (a division of the Orwellian Ministry of Information) revealed that our 198.5 inches actually equaled 166.0 inches.
The moral of the story: for better or worse, things are not always as they appear. What other tidings did 2018 bring? Shake your trust issues — like a salt shaker (it might get slippery out here) — and follow along for a guided tour of the year just passed.
The Year in Government & Politics
The good news: Mayor Joe Schember proved recently that he can grow a decent beard, and has also proven to make a fairly good impression in his first year in office. Erie's 48th mayor was sworn in on January 2, promising to "build opportunity, restore hope, and transform Erie" – he said it here, in fact. Schember has adopted a much more public leadership style than his predecessor, holding weekly news conferences and actively engaging with the community (e.g., the "Summer of Hope" tour through Erie's east side). In hoping to repair the strained relationship between the police and the minority community, his administration launched the Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships Council and is investigating the implementation of police body cameras to foster more accountability.
Acknowledging that the manufacturing jobs that once sustained Erie were not coming back, Schember set goals of attracting jobs in more upwardly-trending fields like tech to encourage young adults to stay put. He proposed a 10-year 100 percent Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA) for any new residential construction in targeted areas and 50 percent abatement for commercial developments to spur economic growth. Additionally, he and new Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership CEO James Grunke are exploring the benefits of the new federal Opportunity Zones program, which incentivizes outside capital investments in economically depressed areas. Opponents of the legislation object to potential gentrification, or current residents being priced out of the area.
Realizing the magnitude of the task at hand, he set about creating a solid team around him to help start affecting the changes prescribed in Erie Refocused, the comprehensive plan to reinvent the city laid out by consultant Charles Buki of Alexandria, Virginia-based
Shifting our lens outward to the region, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dealt a major blow to gerrymandering in January, when it ruled the 2011 Congressional map unconstitutional, issuing the statement that Congressional districts should not "divide any county, city, incorporated town, borough, township, or ward except to ensure equality of population." It charged the Pennsylvania General Assembly and (recently re-elected) Governor Wolf with redrawing the Congressional districts, and thus Erie County was reunited within the new PA-16 (which also encompasses all of Crawford, Mercer, and Lawrence counties, along with a sizable chunk of Butler County.) The implications of this measure were felt deeply in the 2018 midterm elections, with incumbent U.S. Congressman Mike Kelly (R) withstanding a strong push from Democratic challenger Ron DiNicola, who won the newly reunited Erie County handily by 19,813 votes. Fairer and more closely contested races can be expected down the road as a result of this ruling.
The bad news: It's never smooth sailing in politics — just ask Czech President Milos Zeman, who in June invited the media to watch him burn a large pair of "red underwear" (i.e., a symbolic cloth that might have doubled as a topsail) in response to critics accusing him of Communist affiliations. At least he had a sense of humor about it.
No laughing matter is the City of Erie's impending budget crisis, which projects an $11 million deficit for 2019. Schember advised the public not to panic, citing the city's $11 million in reserve. So worst case scenario — we might break even, avoiding dissolution and/or state takeover. However, forecasts show that the deficit could balloon to as much as $22 million by 2024. Since we missed the window to profitably convert our coffers to cryptocurrency (after peaking in January, Bitcoin's value plummeted sharply throughout 2018), we must determine where more real money might come from — externally from increased taxes and fees (as reluctantly proposed by Schember) or internally from pay freezes and budget cuts (as passionately argued for by others, such as City Councilwoman Liz Allen).
Of course, there is the $3.2 million worth (!) of unpaid parking tickets out there to be seized as well. Perhaps local author and historian James McQuiston, an expert on the fabled Oak Island treasures of Nova Scotia — can also help authorities plumb the depths of this mystery.
For those without the means to "earn" parking tickets, the imminent loss of the McBride Viaduct is devastating. The East Avenue bridge had been closed to vehicular traffic since 2010 after being deemed structurally
On another somber note, Erie was bereaved of another community fixture when longtime State Representative Flo Fabrizio (PA-2) passed away from pancreatic cancer in July. Former City Councilman Bob Merski was voted in as his replacement in November's mid-term elections. His service and contributions will be missed.
The Year in Entertainment, Arts & Culture
The good news: Erie continued to embrace its diversity and varied heritage throughout the year, with events such as Gannon University's International Night, the expERIEnce Children's Museum's Multicultural Asia Day, and the return of the AmeriMasala enriching our cultural scene with the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes of abroad.
Two of Erie's preeminent cultural organizations, the Erie Art Museum and Erie Arts & Culture, appointed youthful new leadership. Joshua Helmer succeeded John Vanco as the Erie Art Museum's executive director by way of Philadelphia via Little Falls, N.Y. Following up Vanco's legacy will be a tall task, but Helmer's big city experience (and results) combined with his small town roots provide a dual perspective well-suited for Erie. Patrick Fisher, whose path to the Erie Arts & Culture post led through Jacksonville, Fla., took over for Amanda Brown Sissem this September. The museum's highly attended Gallery Nights and another picture-perfect Blues and Jazz Festival (this time hosted by Erie Arts & Culture) proved that, yes, sometimes Erieites do appreciate nice things.
The rapid ascendancy of the food truck proves we appreciate them
One of these, of course, was a revamped CelebrateErie. With an increased emphasis on community inclusion, downtown was reconfigured into four districts, featuring art (highlighted by the always impressive Chalk Walk), culture (highlighted by the Erie Insurance International Marketplace), food & beverage, and music. Shedding the customary mullet rock in an appeal to millennial audiences,
The bad news: Two other high-profile outdoor concerts —Presque Isle Partnership's "Best Summer Night," featuring the Steve Miller Band and Peter Frampton, and country star Jake Owen's tour stop at UPMC Park — were initially washed out in June (but later rescheduled). One might conclude this was divine retribution for the SeaWolves' intent to unleash the Cotton Candy Hot Dog upon the world later that month. This culinary curiosity, featuring a Smith's hot dog nestled in a bed of cotton candy and generously garnished with crunchy Nerds candy, was introduced on June 23 for the SeaWolves' Sugar Rush Night promotion and rapidly became a media sensation. The instantly infamous frank(
Although the SeaWolves promotions team continues to make waves in Minor League circles with memorable offerings, the on-field product remained forgettable, with the Pups finishing fifth out of six (63-77) in the Eastern League Western Division and missing the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season. The Erie Otters, 2017 OHL Champions, did not come close to replicating the successes of previous years, as a roster ransacked by the NHL Draft stumbled to a 27-35-7-3 record and ninth place finish (out of 10) in the Western Conference. The Erie BayHawks fared much better, falling just one game short of qualifying for the NBA G-League Finals. They finished 2018 with a 28-22 record in the regular, with one of the wins coming as the tongue-in-
The BayHawks' future in Erie remains tenuous beyond the 2021-22 season, as their current affiliation with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks will expire this coming spring (with the creation of a new G-League franchise in College Park, Ga.), and their new partnership with the New Orleans Pelicans will only endure until renovations to Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala. are completed. On the plus side, however, the SeaWolves secured their long-term future in Erie thanks to a $12 million state grant for the ballpark renovations their Major League counterpart Detroit Tigers have long demanded, including a brand new field and scoreboards and overhauled concession stands, bathrooms, corporate suites, and commissary areas. Both the SeaWolves and Otters (who play in neighboring Erie Insurance Arena) signed new 10-year leases as a consequence of the funds. Perhaps the ensuing decade will bring better luck — and more championships — to Erie.
The Year in Self-Image
The good news: It's hard to get people to agree on just about anything — except to get naked, as 2,505 Irish women did to set a Guinness World Record for skinny dipping this June (for the noble cause of "kicking the shite out of cancer"). On the shores of Lake Erie, leadership has long hesitated at the water's edge in regard to affecting meaningful change without taking the plunge. In 2018, toes were at least in the water as a number of significant developments and investments in the city — especially the downtown — were initiated.
Those looking to get an eyeful might be gratified with this figure — $500 million, the amount invested in new construction between the healthcare juggernauts UPMC Hamot ($111 million seven-story patient tower at 104 E. Second St.) and Highmark Allegheny Health Network St. Vincent Hospital ($115 million expansion project and $25.6 million cancer center at W. 25th and Myrtle), and business behemoths Erie Insurance ($135 million office building along East Sixth Street), and Scott Enterprises (the $150 million Harbor Place project on the bayfront). That's not to mention Great Lakes Insurance Services Group owner Pete Zaphiris' purchase of the former
Within those walls lies the new headquarters of the Erie Innovation District, an initiative launched in 2016 via a $4 million grant from the Erie Community Foundation in cooperation with the Susan Hirt Hagen Fund for Transformational Philanthropy and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (ECGRA). Their goal: to marry academia and industry and nurture new business in security, intelligence, and safety. This summer, the Innovation District teamed with Mercyhurst University and Velocity Network to help catalyze Erie's metamorphosis into a "smart city" — i.e., one more energy-efficient, intelligent, secure, and accessible (free Wi-Fi in Perry Square, with aims of broadening to city-wide coverage in 2019). In addition, the Innovation District hosted the First Secure Erie Accelerator in tandem with Singularity University, a program designed to get tech startups off the ground. After the 10-week business
The Erie Downtown Development Corporation (EDDC) also made its first big move in 2018, purchasing essentially all of North Park Row for both commercial space and residential units. The organization, spearheaded by CEO John Persinger, an attorney
And, thanks to the new meterEZ phone app, downtown visitors can leave their coin purses at home (collectors are advised to hold onto their vintage Erie Parking Authority tokens). We'll
The bad news: While the enthusiasm to make a splash downtown is commendable, an algal bloom of problems clouds the city's future in other aspects. Despite the tremendous ongoing efforts of activist groups like Eastside Grassroots Coalition, Our West Bayfront, and Bayfront Eastside Task Force, blight and violence remain difficult issues to overcome in Erie's most poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Initiatives like Unified Erie (a three-pronged approach to refine enforcement techniques, foster prevention, and facilitate societal re-entry of former inmates to reduce recidivism) have helped curb the spate of "shots fired" calls and gang-related incidents, but in a year that notched 19 homicides in Erie County, with 13 of them occurring within the city limits, much work remains to be done.
Meanwhile, the opioid epidemic continues to grip the region, underscored by a giveaway of 5,000 units of the overdose reversal drug Narcan at the Blasco Memorial Library on December 13. Figures for 2018 have yet to be finalized, but 2017's numbers paint a grim picture — 5,388 overdose deaths in Pennsylvania, with 124 transpiring in Erie County. The Jefferson Educational Society, who recently hosted their 10th annual Global Summit, studied the issue with the 2017 class of their Civic Leadership Academy. Nationwide, preventable deaths both followed disturbing upward trends — 70,000 overdose deaths and 47,000 suicides. A sense of despair has set in, particularly amidst the younger generations. With tragedies such as the Catholic Church's sexual abuse cover-up scandal coming to light — an 884-page Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report released in August listed the names of 41 predator priests in the Diocese of Erie — it is evident that their best interests and welfare have been routinely abandoned. Compound news of this with underfunded public schools and neglected neighborhoods, and it may seem as if there is no refuge.
Erie and some of its bedrock institutions have an image to repair. To his credit, Bishop Lawrence Persico has handled the fallout from the scandal with tact and transparency — but such ordeals leave deep scars. School District of Erie Superintendent Brian Polito, finally possessing the wherewithal to keep our public schools afloat (thanks to recurring state aid), is making a strong push for more funding to make desperately needed upgrades to facilities and services. Investing in our students is one of the surest ways to invest in our city's future.
In 2019 and beyond, Erie must begin to make headlines for the right reasons. Bizarre crimes like the Pizza Bomber Case (further popularized by the Netflix series Evil Genius), Karen LeClair's disappearance in Lake Erie-turned murder (poorly passed off as a suicide), and the smothering of a 120-lb.
Matt Swanseger lives for good news, but formally recognizes bad news bears as well at email@example.com