In April, we made our third stop in my Exploring Erie County initiative. We spent a busy day in North East. We had a great day, despite the gray, chilly weather.

Little Shop of Donuts

We couldn’t visit North East without making our first stop be Little Shop of Donuts for a quick breakfast.

Owner Patrick Skelly, who hand-made our doughnuts, told us about how he came to open the shop two years ago. Hearing the story, it’s clear that he’s a true entrepreneur.

As he tells it, he used to treat his kids to doughnuts on Fridays. They would get the treats from the large case in a grocery store, and would choose from pre-made flavors. Like a true entrepreneur, he thought: There has to be a better way.

The better way that he created was to make doughnuts in small batches – so they’re always fresh – and allow customers to pick and choose their own toppings.

The shop, run by Skelly and his wife, sells chocolate or vanilla doughnuts – old-fashioned fry cakes, as a sign declares – with toppings of the buyer’s choice. They are either “yummy” for 90 cents or downright “delicious” for $1.20. The two we tried – a vanilla Holy Cow Tail (a salted caramel marvel) and a chocolate Peanut Butter Cup (just as it sounds) – certainly were delicious. The fry cakes themselves were soft, fragrant and fresh, and the toppings were unlike any we had ever had on a doughnut before.

It’s clear that the Skellys not only take pride in their products, but also have a little fun along the way. The toppings have clever names (like the Yabadaba, which is studded with Fruit Pebbles). A special creation for April even featured a full marshmallow Peep on top.

Fortified with fry cakes, we set out for our next stop in North East.

Post Apples

Following winding roads out of the borough and into North East Township, we came to Post Apples.

We were eager to learn more about the farm and the CSA, especially with the summer growing season right around the corner.

Owner Gordon Post showed us some of the seedlings he had sprouting in a greenhouse – “we’re planting like crazy right now,” he said – and talked to us about his operation.

CSA stands for community supported agriculture, and it’s like a subscription service for farm-fresh produce. Post Apples has been in the CSA business for about nine years. Before that, the farm mostly grew commodity crops, which has included apples, oats and potatoes.

With the CSA, the Posts have cultivated a wide range of fruits and vegetables – 150 varieties or more in a year, Gordon said, including more than 40 varieties of tomatoes in one season alone. And they’re always experimenting with more. They’ve added jicama in past years, and this year they have logs set up to grow mushrooms.

In fact, experimentation is a pretty consistent trait when it comes to Post’s efforts to expand the opportunities for Erie County residents to have easy access to fresh, local food.

And it makes sense that Posts keep looking for the perfect formula for their CSA – after all, another arm of the family business, Post Scientific, sells laboratory equipment and supplies.

When it comes to the CSA, Gordon Post said they’re still “trying to figure out the sweet spot.” That includes adjusting the CSA in order to meet what customers want. They offer different size options, and they added an opportunity for customers to work off part of their costs by spending time working on the farm. This year, as they’re ramping up for a new CSA season, they’re considering a new way for customers to choose what they receive in their weekly delivery.

The CSA, which has between 200 and 250 subscribers, is not the Posts’ main business, and they don’t expect that to change. As Gordon said, “no one makes a ton of money off of farming.” But the Posts do want to see the CSA thrive, since it serves two purposes: The family can continue the tradition of growing fresh produce in North East Township, and the people of Erie County can have access to fresh, healthy food.

Skunk & Goat Tavern

With thoughts of the summer’s bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables in our heads, we headed out to lunch at the Skunk & Goat Tavern in downtown North East Borough.

The Skunk & Goat, which used to be Cork 1794, reopened a few months earlier after renovations. The new tavern has a more open feel, and the food was just as good as it used to be.

We were meeting with some local officials – Dave Hall, council president, and Patrick Gehrlein, borough manager, from North East Borough; Fritzer Shunk, a North East Township supervisor; and Charlene Kerr, a North East Township business owner who also serves on the EMTA board.

Our group was treated to one of the most unique features of the Skunk & Goat – a former bank vault that has been turned into a small private dining room.

Over delicious sandwiches and salads, we had a productive, wide-ranging conversation about the challenges and successes that the borough and township were experiencing.

The local officials were interested to hear about the progress of the newly created Erie County Land Bank, as well as about how a recently implemented $5 fee could be used to fix locally owned bridges that are in sore need of repair.

They also spoke about how they have been able to make progress through collaboration – whether with each other or with county government. One example is the East County emergency dispatch center, which will be rolled into Erie County Department of Public Safety operations by the end of this year. It is a great example of how local governments are able to be more efficient and effective by working together.

Mercyhurst North East

After lunch, we made the short trip to the growing Mercyhurst North East campus, just north of downtown.

We gathered in a nook in Ridge Library, where several university officials told us about an exciting new program at the campus. The Women with Children Program, which is on track to start in the fall semester, will provide assistance to single mothers looking to complete a college degree.

The mothers and children will have the opportunity to live on campus in a townhouse building that will be only for families. The goal is to create a supportive community for these women, so that they can complete a two-year degree and create a brighter future for their families.

We also heard about other success stories, including those of adults – both veterans and those laid off from other jobs – who completed a degree in a new field.

The North East campus is now home to about 700 students, and about 40 percent of those students are nontraditional – meaning they are not attending college right out of high school. The campus, which was founded in 1991, has been growing in leaps and bounds to create an inviting atmosphere for the student body.

We took a quick tour of some of those facilities, including a recently redesigned student union that includes common areas and private study pods. We also tried out a 3D anatomy lab tool that allows users wearing the special 3D glasses to take a comprehensive look at the systems of the body.

It’s always good to hear how our institutes of higher learning are faring, and it is clear that the Mercyhurst officials that I spoke with are proud – rightly so – of the progress on their campus.

Northern Lights Hydroponics

After we left the campus, we headed to Northern Lights Hydroponics, which is just outside the borough on Route 20 – in the valley, as North East residents describe. Owner Kim Daugherty opened the store several months back and is dedicated to promoting opportunities for Erie County residents to grow fresh produce all year round, even during the long winter months. The shop draws customers from as far away as New York state and Grove City, she said.

The shop features an array of nutrients, lighting and other supplies, and Kim’s knowledge of hydroponics is clear. The shop features plants in various stages – including an avocado tree just taking root, and a flourishing tomato plant.

Kim also donated a section of her shop to a good cause. When we were there, volunteers from Project Love were preparing for their annual fundraiser in their corner of the storefront. Project Love creates and distributes gift boxes for needy children in North East at Christmastime. Last year, they gave away 465 boxes! The volunteers were grateful for the space in Kim’s shop, and were busy making preparations for this year’s task.

McCord Memorial Library

We wrapped up our day in North East with two events at McCord Memorial Library, a stately building at the corner of Gibson Park in the borough’s downtown.

First, we were treated to a reading from Erie County Poet Laureate Marisa Moks-Unger.

A crowd of about 20 people were on hand to listen to her read a selection of her poems, many of which were inspired by her life in Erie County.

Her enthusiasm for her work was evident, as she read the words with enthusiasm and conviction.

Marisa just wrapped up her tenure as Erie County Poet Laureate, which culminated in the publication of a community-contributed poetry anthology, “Picture This.”

After the poetry reading, the guests stayed for an informal chat – what we’ve been calling “Q&A with the County Executive.”

They asked questions and I shared information about county issues and programs, and we had an engaging, wide-ranging discussion that touched on the status of the proposed community college, the purpose of the new $5 fee on car registrations, the new Erie County Land Bank and much more.

It was the perfect way to end our day. We had experienced nothing but warmth and welcome in North East, despite the cool, drizzly day, and this crowd was no different.