This year, I’m launching a new initiative, called Exploring Erie County. Each month, I’ll spend a day in a different Erie County municipality. First up was Fairview Township. Here are some highlights of the day’s adventures:

 Main Street Cakery Café

Our first stop in Fairview Township was at the Main Street Cakery Café, which opened on Route 20 a little less than five years ago. The bakery and café, which serves a full breakfast and lunch menu, was doing a steady business even around mid-morning. Inside, the place is cozy and welcoming, with an industrial chic feel that still feels homey. It was a perfect place to meet with Erie County Councilwoman Carol Loll, a fantastic Fairview ambassador, and Jim Cardman, Fairview Township’s Planning and Zoning Administrator.

Carol represents Council’s sprawling 7th District, which includes Fairview Township and points west, covering much of western Erie County.

Carol and Jim talked about the consolidation of Fairview Township and the former Fairview Borough, a merger that took place 20 years ago this year. Both were actively involved in the process – Jim had his current position, and Carol was on Fairview Borough Council. They recounted the challenges that led to the decision to merge, and also the benefits that the unified municipality has enjoyed since the successful consolidation.

Our wide-ranging conversation also covered Fairview’s hopes for the newly formed Erie County Land Bank, zoning in the township, and the role of the Erie County Planning Department.

Fueled by a great intro conversation to Fairview – and carrying the dozen cookies we bought to bring back to the courthouse – we headed to our next stop: Lignitech.

 

Lignitech

Lignitech might be a small company, but it has certainly left its mark on our community.

The business, located on Middle Road, is a commercial wood shop that was founded in 1985. Lignitech’s custom cabinetry and millwork can be seen on projects around Erie County, including at grocery stores, banks, healthcare facilities, universities and the county’s largest employers – and even at Blasco Library.

Walking around the shop floor, owner Vlado Benden pointed out pieces in progress, and what they would ultimately become: lockers for a fitness center, panels for a high-tech lab at a local college, display cases for collectible knives.

The company currently has eight employees but plans to add one to two more to accommodate large projects coming their way, including the new Erie Insurance building currently under construction in downtown Erie.

“It’s going to be seven floors, so that’s a lot of millwork,” Vlado said.

Finding qualified employees can be a challenge, he said. They need people who have at least some raw skills, such as reading a tape measure, as well as a strong work ethic.

Both Vlado and Steven Hannah, Lignitech’s vice president, agreed that they see a need for the technical training that a community college could provide – one that isn’t necessarily being met by existing programs.

Steven is himself a product of the Erie County Technical School, which was a natural fit for him since his family was in construction. He started at Lignitech in 2000, eventually becoming a partner in the company.

Vlado took a slightly different path. After moving to Los Angeles to become an actor, he got into building sets and scenery to support himself. He and his wife eventually moved to Erie County to be closer to family, and he started working at Lignitech in 1994.

Over the years, the pair have been able to mold the company into a solid business – introducing new equipment, such as the CNC routers that allowed them to work more safely and efficiently; overcoming challenges, like the cash-flow issues that are so common to any small business; and, above all, maintaining the reputation for quality custom work.

“Over the years, we’ve gotten the reputation of being able to do the challenging stuff,” Vlado said.

 

Lincoln Community Center Library

After Lignitech, we headed east on West Lake Road to the Lincoln Community Center Library, one of the five Erie County Public Library branches.

The top-notch library staff there had a table waiting for us, ready for my “Q&A with the County Executive” – an informal meet-and-greet with library patrons.

I plan to hold these Q&A sessions monthly at each town I visit. I’ve always thought it important for elected officials to be accessible to the public, and this gives me an opportunity to make myself available to any residents who have questions, concerns or complaints. And the public library, to me, is the perfect location – after all, libraries welcome people from all walks of life.

I saw that first-hand at the Lincoln Community Center Library.

I spoke with a home-schooled teen whose mom brought her in for a conversation about civics and local government. I spoke with a woman who was concerned about cuts to mental healthcare, to retired folks coming in for weekend reading materials and to younger people using the computers to look for a job.

During the brief downtimes, I got to look around the inviting library space. In the children’s section, cushy chairs that look like giant storybooks welcome visitors to sit and read, and Lego creations on display showcase young imaginations. For adults, stacks of books provide collections, and a bank of computers provides connections. And for the overall community, a bright, spacious meeting space offers opportunities to gather.

All in all, it was a nice place to spend the lunch hour and a perfect spot to meet members of the community.

We headed back to the car, and pulled out that handy Cakery bag from the backseat – we hadn’t scheduled time for lunch, and the cookies provided fuel for our next stop. (I guess that just meant fewer goodies for the staff back at the courthouse!)

 

Fairview supervisors work session

When we arrived at the Fairview Township building, I found I got a two-for-one deal – or a six-for-three deal. Not only was I able to meet with the Fairview supervisors, but the Girard Township supervisors were at the meeting as well.

Top of mind for the Fairview supervisors was a concern about stormwater runoff. The county owns property in the area along Route 20 that has recurring problems with flooding. Not only does the stormwater cause problems in Fairview Township, the drainage system backs up and causes flooding problems in Girard Township – and even Girard Borough, the supervisors told me. We strategized about potential solutions, including collaborative efforts.

The supervisors also detailed for me a plan under consideration that would revamp a stretch of Route 20 in Fairview into a more welcoming downtown-type area. The sketches I saw were appealing, and held a lot of promise for place-making in the township.

We also discussed the new $5 fee on vehicle registrations in Erie County. I emphasized that every dollar of that fee – which is expected to bring in $1.2 million – will stay right here in the county, and the state will match up to $2 million. The funds will help municipalities, like Fairview and Girard, pay for transportation-related projects. First up: repair structurally deficient bridges.

That led to discussion of another new fee – the addition of $14.25 to the recording of deeds and mortgages that is expected to add $200,000 annually to fight blight.

I found it to be a productive work session. Though there was no action taken, it is good for me to be able to hear first-hand about the concerns and challenges facing our municipalities directly from the local elected officials.

 

Pleasant Ridge Manor

Our last stop was to Pleasant Ridge Manor, the county-run skilled-nursing facility on Route 20.

I’m always happy to visit the manor, even just for the chance to see the dedicated and skilled staff. I’ve often said that the employees at Pleasant Ridge are second to none, and that was clear to me once again during my visit.

I was there for a special occasion: Bingo. About 50 or so residents had gathered for their regular Bingo game, and I had the privilege of being their caller. Well, it was a privilege for me, but the residents might have preferred to have a more experienced person calling out the numbers. There were several times that the residents offered some vocal feedback on my calling technique.

After spending some time with the residents, it was time to head back to the courthouse. On our way back to Erie, we took a little jaunt along Route 20 to scope out the stormwater situation. With the light rain that had been falling, the fields and ditches were already saturated. I’m glad the township supervisors brought the matter to my attention – it was one of many things I learned during my day exploring Fairview.

 

Fairview fun fact:

Fairview Evergreen Nurseries, founded in 1911, is today one of the largest private landowners in Erie County.