Erie's Downtown Renaissance: The First Place of Return
Preservation, partnerships, and progress make downtown a destination
For a short period of time, between 1830-1831, Horace Greeley, printer, editor, and founder of the New York Tribune, lived in Erie in the building known as the Sterrett House (named for Joseph Sterrett, founder of The Erie Gazette) on the west side of State Street between 4th and 5th. Greeley was famously quoted as saying: "Erie is the shabbiest and most broken-down looking large town I, an individual not wholly untraveled, ever saw in a free state." Greely is certainly not the only one who has held this belief in the past, as those in the comment sections can attest: the self-esteem problem in Erie often shows up loud. Up until recently, the home in which Greeley resided during his short stint in our town, actually was one of the shabbiest, most broken-down buildings on State Street. But that building, along with a shockingly large number of other historic buildings in the greater downtown area, have undergone a transformation and now, as the oldest building on State Street, it has been restored, shored-up, and renovated into something worth celebrating.
It is obvious to anyone spending time in Downtown Erie, that we are in a period of major transition. With so many organizations working together to bring beauty and vibrancy to our main street (like the Erie Downtown Partnership, The EDDC, Gannon, Erie Events, UPMC Hamot, Erie Insurance, Tom Hagen and the Historic Erie Preservation Trust, the Erie Art Museum, the ExpErience Children's Museum, neighborhood groups, individual business owners and, of course, City Hall) the changes happening in Erie are coming all at once and totally upending the way our downtown looks, feels, and is perceived by all who visit it. And perhaps best of all, the buildings that lend Erie its character, and make it a place worth visiting and learning about, are all getting a second look, and the work being done in these historic buildings ensures that they will stand and contribute to the character of our city for generations to come.
The Sterrett House at 414 State Street has recently undergone a complete renovation and restoration at the hands of Tom Hagen, the Erie Historic Preservation Trust, and Kidder Architects. It is the oldest building on State Street, constructed in 1830. (Photo: Jessica Hunter)
Having beautifully preserved and reimagined uses for historic buildings is a key element in creating a destination: for locals and tourists alike. According to the National Park Service, "One of the most overlooked aspects of historic preservation is its economic impact. Cities and towns that have embraced their heritage and allowed it to remain often take on a vibrant, eclectic feel, a trick that could not be pulled off in a new construction by the cleverest architects. Preservation enhances real estate values and fosters local businesses, keeping historic main streets and downtowns economically viable. Heritage tourism is a real economic force, one that is evident in places that have preserved their historic character. Developers are discovering that money spent rehabilitating historic buildings is actually an investment in the future, when these structures could be the showpieces of a revitalized city."
But we certainly don't need empirical evidence here, we know it intrinsically: people enjoy visiting a place with character, with a walkable, charming historic downtown. And with our refreshed old buildings lining State Street, North Park Row and around Perry Square, the newly restored Warner Theatre, as well as all the buildings in the West 6th Street Historic District (which is the first point of contact to our downtown from the west), we are seeing the benefits of this kind of economic impact first hand and realizing that our town can be considered an alluring destination.
The Erie Downtown Partnership (EDP) is one organization that has been aiding in Erie's Renaissance for the past 18 years. And while they have been a fixture for nearly two decades, the group has become much more noticeable lately, as they have significantly bumped up the number of events and projects offered in recent years, bringing a buzz to downtown. Executive Director, Emily Fetcko comments: "In 2022 we coordinated 150 activations downtown including farmers' markets, movie nights, music series, wellness and fitness groups, and retail pop-ups." But creating programming for our downtown spaces is not the be all, end all of the EDP, they also maintain the public spaces to make sure downtown remains a beautiful and safe place to spend time. Fetcko continues, "In addition to our activation we help care for and maintain the public right of way providing power washing, graffiti removal, litter and weed abatement, tree and flower watering, and snow removal on the sidewalks. We also provide business support services in the form of marketing, advocacy, and grants. A lot of people don't fully understand just how much we do and how involved we are with the management of the downtown."
With that management comes a new and welcome addition to the responsibilities of the EDP: design guidelines. "We just completed the first Downtown Design Guidelines to assist property owners with historic property consideration and maintenance. This particular project was born out of many property owners asking for resources to get information about their building as well as where to start in thinking about a plan for maintenance or renovation. For years the Erie Downtown Partnership has provided Façade Reimbursement Grants and having a resource guide to provide to applicants is very helpful to creating a better built environment," Fetcko states. With those design guidelines in place, any new construction or renovations to existing buildings will be ensured to fit, character-wise, into the overall vibe of our downtown.
The other major player in downtown's Renaissance is the Erie Downtown Development Corporation (EDDC), and they have taken the work of historic preservation very seriously (in partnership with Albert Kahn Associates Architecture and Engineering) investing nearly 40 million dollars into the restoration and preservation of seven (soon to be eight) historic buildings along North Park Row, the Cashier's House, and along the Wright Block on State Street (between 4th and 5th on the east side of State Street). CEO, John Persinger comments on the importance of this preservation work: "It was critical for us to preserve these buildings because, as Erie's first commercial district, these buildings represent our great history. Every community deserves a sense of place, and Downtown Erie is the heart of our community. These buildings hold great stories about where we have come from and, maybe more importantly, where we are headed as a community. We are proud to have been able to preserve these historic properties for decades to come."
The buildings lining North Park Row's western block have all received a large amount of structural preservation work at the hands of the Erie Downtown Development Corporation, ensuring they stand tall for generations to come. (Photo: Jessica Hunter)
Not only has the EDDC injected new life into these buildings with opportunities for new small businesses to move into a newly renovated space, they have also done an important amount of structural work with their restorations (most that would be considered unaffordable for the average business owner). "Sadly, these historic properties had suffered from decades of deferred maintenance, which is why the restoration costs are so high," Persinger continues. "We are so appreciative of the National Park Service, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places, and the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, who both offered plenty of assistance and guidance as we worked to restore these properties." But restoring a building is really just the first step in reinvigorating our downtown, it takes active small businesses, and people to patronize those businesses, to make it all work. "A lot of credit is due, as well, to all of our commercial tenants, who represent the best that Erie has to offer and who are helping us to cultivate an Erie Experience downtown, and to our residential tenants, who believe in downtown's great potential," Persinger explains.
With the reinvigoration of the downtown corridor comes the overall improvement of the nearby neighborhoods. Organizations like Our West Bayfront to the west, and the East Side Renaissance to the east, can attest: it is not only downtown seeing the positive impacts of historic preservation and increased community activity. Anna Frantz, Executive Director of Our West Bayfront comments, "The way I see it, the revitalization of the downtown business district and the neighborhoods around it are all connected parts of an overall effort to remake Erie's downtown core. Strong residential neighborhoods support vibrant businesses, and a great downtown gives people just another reason to live close by in the West Bayfront." And with the newly organized East Side Renaissance helping to increase vibrancy, opportunity, and affordable, safe housing for Erie's historic neighborhood in the Parade Street corridor, both neighborhoods bookending downtown are aiding in the revitalization, making downtown's renaissance a microcosm of the City of Erie's reinvention as a whole.
Whether you're coming downtown to work, eat, see a show or a game, go to a yoga class or farmer's market, passing through on your way to the Bayfront, or coming home, there can be no doubt that Erie's downtown is changing rapidly, and with that change comes a good, long look at our past. Melinda Meyer, President of Preservation Erie comments on these positive changes to our historic buildings and the areas surrounding them: "Erie's historic buildings offer unique opportunities. They are part of what differentiates Erie from anywhere else. While their preservation helps anchor the community's sense of identity and retain cultural capital, reuse of these spaces also contributes to the downtown's renewal. Study after study has shown that historic downtowns and neighborhoods are made to be walkable, old buildings tend to offer affordable, right-sized spaces for entrepreneurs, and historic areas of a city are the 'first place of return' when growth occurs."
If that old curmudgeon, Horace Greeley, visited Erie today, his opinion might be a bit less negative in light of all of the work we've done to shine up our gem of a city. And while Erie still wrestles with its own self-esteem, given all of the changes and progress we've made even in just the past few years, one can't help but be hopeful that all of the time, energy, and love that has been put into our beautiful old buildings will make a positive difference for the future of Erie.