You Ought to Know: Perry Wood
?You can complain about change all you want, but you have to get involved to change anything. What better way to do that than on the inside of the system??
As I drove in to meet Perry Wood at his office in Knowledge Park last week, the setting made quite an impression on me. It was a crisp, airy, sunny spring morning. The cloudless blue sky was framed by hues of tender, light green – the new growth on the tall trees not being nearly weathered enough to yet darken. There's lots of space back here, lots of opportunity, I thought; it's so quiet…everything's so new…the winding roads, the attractive buildings, even the street signs…it's still a work in progress, really, although there's and underlying vitality here, an energy.
Calm and fresh, this day felt; even more so as I located Wood's office building. Secluded yet prominent, integrated with the surrounding woodland, yet modern enough to be striking, the building was set back from the parkway behind a stand of trees, rendering it nearly invisible. The interior lobby was open and airy, although comfy and cozy. With a little help, I found the office of the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority and was ushered back into the office of the Executive Director.
His office is completely congruous with the arboreal setting – plenty of natural light and hushed, neutral tones everywhere. It was a relaxed atmosphere; Wood greeted me in jeans and a blazer. We sat down at a round, four-person table in his office, and I asked him to start at the beginning, so he told me about growing up in Franklin, Pa.
"It's a cool little town," he said. "I think the thing that is most memorable about it is that they really did a nice job in fixing up their main street, so there's a lot of character to it. It's a nice little community, only 5,000 or so people, so Erie is the big city to me," he laughed. He did a lot of that – laughing – throughout our hour-plus interview; he seems to me an affable guy who laughs easily, especially at himself.
After graduating from Franklin High School in 1997, Wood went to Mercyhurst College. "I loved playing soccer. I was the captain of my high school soccer team, but I got to Mercyhurst [and it was] not exactly the same competitive level." He laughed again. "I didn't last very long, but that's kind of what led me to getting more involved in the college. I got involved in things like student government and the student activities committee." After his first semester, he settled on a major. "Really, I've always been interested in solving problems, and political science seemed to be the foundation to help you do that in life," he said. "So I was a political science major." Later, he was appointed to the college senate.
Wood's newfound engagement in the field of scholastic affairs wound up leading him down the path to where he is today, but more importantly, it paved the road to where he might be tomorrow in the field of civic affairs; at Mercyhurst, Wood soon fell under the influence of two influential educators, Political Science Professor Mike Federici and former Mercyhurst President Dr. William Garvey. "Dr. Federici and Dr. Garvey were very influential in crystallizing my intellectual development," said Wood. "And of course Garvey is so involved in the community that he has continued to be an intellectual mentor."
We delved deeper into his relationship with Garvey. "He's like a George Washington figure. George Washington didn't have sons or daughters, and he was basically an adoptive father to many of the founding fathers of the United States. Garvey's kind of that way in this community."
Our conversation then took a more serious turn as Wood leaned forward in his chair. "On a personal note, that's what worries me about the future of this community – you're not always going to have a Dr. Garvey – these people that bring people together, who can pull off something like the Perry 200 Commemoration."
Incidentally, the "Perry 200 Commemoration" has nothing to do with Perry Wood, but his comments are topical and timely. The future of the community has been on a lot of people's minds and lips lately; the plan for the redevelopment of the lakefront GAF site is encouraging the same type of long-term civic discussion that the Perry 200 Commemoration is encouraging. This opportunity comes to Erie about once every half-century or so, this opportunity to drive productive change, and at times the good ship Erie seems either rudderless, or on the verge of mutiny. How does one go about changing that?
"You can complain about change all you want, but you have to get involved to change anything. What better way to do that than on the inside of the system?" opined Wood.
After graduating from Mercyhurst, Wood took his first formative foray into that system, interning with Governor Tom Ridge's office in Northwest Pennsylvania, then with Erie Mayor Rick Filippi's administration. "It was a really exciting time, because you had a county executive and a mayor who had been there for 30-plus years, and they were both leaving office at the very same time. So all this new leadership was going to be taking place, and people thought this was a real opportunity for change.
"I really learned some key things there, things that have stuck with me. One is a theory that I like to call 'entrepreneurial government.' I didn't develop the theory; I stole it from a guy who developed it in the 1970s," he laughed. "It's this idea that for real change, people at the executive level are really there to guide the process of change, but not necessarily to lead it themselves. They're cheerleaders, they are supporters, they are facilitators, but real change comes from entrepreneurial government."
What Wood is talking about is civic improvement performed by groups outside of the governmental structure, but with the support of leaders in government. "That entrepreneurial government theme has really influenced me, and that's why, when the mayor said, 'Hey, why don't you do something about downtown Erie?' I immediately looked to systems we could set up outside city government." Classic entrepreneurial government. Stakeholder government. Grassroots government.
Thus, the Downtown Improvement District, which survives today as the Erie Downtown Partnership, was born. According to their website, the EDP is "a nonprofit designed to revitalize the Erie, PA downtown by improving its image, business climate, physical environment and design." You may know them better as the people who bring you the summer Block Party series.
"So I left the City of Erie, with the blessing of the administration, and threw my hat in the ring to be the first director of this organization." He got the job. "It was tremendous. I was implementing this theory I had about entrepreneurial government."
Wood's experience grew, and soon, so did his responsibility. "Things were really moving, and all of a sudden, this opportunity came up to be the CEO of the Technology Council of Northwest Pennsylvania. So it was going from hyper-local to this regional concept." The Tech Council's website says that they have "grown from an upstart nonprofit to a strong trade association addressing the information technology, telecommunications, manufacturing and entrepreneurial needs of the members…by bringing like-minded people together to explore technology and innovation that affects their industry." It was a natural opportunity for Wood to continue fine-tuning his theory.
"Once again, I think of that theory of entrepreneurial government – it's a nonprofit that has an economic development function." Wood remained with the Tech Council for about six years.
"Then, I heard about this opportunity [at the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, or ECGRA]. I went through the extensive interview process; I've never been through anything like that. And…I did not get the job." He laughed. A year came and passed, and then, suddenly, the opportunity presented itself again. Initially, Wood was reluctant. "I said no, but then I thought about it for a month. And I had this entrepreneurial government theory, and what better way to do it…"
Indeed. "I've been doing this about 12 months now," he said.
And it's been a busy 12 months. In ECGRA's 2011-2012 Annual Report, Wood states that upon creation in 2008, ECGRA was "an unprecedented opportunity in the history of Erie County to cultivate social and economic change through gaming proceeds." Since their establishment in early 2008, ECGRA's done just that, investing nearly $20 million in grants or endowments, all in Erie County – to tech start-ups, social service organizations, nonprofits, municipalities, educational programs, even festivals. This, in a nutshell, is Perry Wood's "entrepreneurial government" theory in practice.
Throughout his brief professional career – he's in his early 30s – Perry Wood has been refining and implementing his theory of entrepreneurial government while casting a vigilant eye on the future of our community. As I left his office after the interview, it was still a crisp, airy, sunny spring morning; the brilliant blue sky still did not have a single cloud meandering across it. The tender, light green growth on the tall trees reminded me of works-in-progress, of the underlying vitality and energy enveloping the place. Perry Wood gets to experience this every day, but it's clear these impressions do not leave him once he ventures inside.
Cory Vaillancourt can be reached at cVaillancourt@ErieReader.com