Author: Kathy Dahlkemper

Exploring Erie County: Our day in Edinboro

Recently, we made our fourth stop in my Exploring Erie County initiative. We spent some time exploring Edinboro.

Flip Cafe

We started our day at Flip Cafe, a popular breakfast spot in the borough, with Borough Councilman Fred Langill.

Langill had reached out to my office after he first took office in January, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to check in with him.

Though he is new to elected office, Langill is no stranger to community involvement. He was a co-founder of the Flagship Niagara League, and has long been an advocate for his adopted home of Edinboro.

These days, he’s eager to ensure that developments being talked about elsewhere in Erie County – namely in the City of Erie – don’t pass by communities south of Interstate 90.

It was good to meet Councilman Langill and hear his ideas – and enthusiasm – for the borough.

All too soon, however, we were off to our next stop, which was just down the street.

Edinboro Borough Building

Next on our agenda was a conversation with Kevin Opple, the manager for the Borough of Edinboro.

I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet with Opple since he was hired in 2017. It was a good way for me to get to know what is happening in the borough and how the county might be able to assist our local municipalities.

One of the topics that came up in our conversation was the recently formed Erie County Land Bank, which will be used as a tool to fight blight in communities across the county.

Edinboro, as Opple pointed out, might be a unique situation among Erie County municipalities. There are quite a few rental properties in the borough, thanks to the presence of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. And in addition, about 54 percent of property in the borough is tax exempt.

We also discussed the Erie County Public Safety Advisory Board’s newly created subcommittee that aims to address some of the strains on local emergency services, as well as the $5 fee on car registrations that will be used to fund repairs on locally owned bridges and roads.

Opple also gave me a quick peek at the borough’s new water treatment facility, which is taking shape next door to the borough building on Meadville Street.

Lunch at Engine House 39 Social Club

We left Edinboro borough and crossed into neighboring Washington Township for our next appointment – lunch at Engine House 39 Social Club, which opened in April on Route 99 behind the Washington Township building.

Edinboro Volunteer Fire Department’s social club was bustling during lunchtime, which is when it is open to the public. The remaining hours of the day, including dinnertime and late night, the club is for members and their guests. Membership is just $25 per year. Proceeds from the social club benefit the fire department – which, like so many other local emergency operations, is looking for new ways to make ends meet.

The firefighting connection is evident in the restaurant, where helmets and hydrants – along with stunning images of heroic firefighters at work – help to make up the décor.

We were joined at lunch by Mary Jo Campbell, a Washington Township Council member. Washington Township operates with a township manager and a five-member council, and Campbell is in her third term on the council.

As we dined, we discussed the social club, as well as some issues facing Washington Township. Many of those issues are similar to those we discussed earlier in the day with the Edinboro borough manager.

We also touched on the topic of recycling, which has been facing drastic changes nationwide lately. Washington Township hosted a recycling drop-off site for the county recycling program, until a persistent problem with illegal dumping forced the closure of the site last year.

Now, recycling is undergoing more struggles, as waste haulers change their policies for what is accepted and what is not. As consumers, we are left with little recourse, which can be frustrating. All we can do is make sure we are following local guidelines for recycling – and to try to reduce our waste as much as possible. With that idea top of mind, we passed on the plastic straws at the social club. It might be a tiny gesture, but it is one that could add up, since 500 million plastic straws are thrown away every day in the U.S.

With bellies full, we headed back to downtown Edinboro to visit another relatively new enterprise: Edinboro Market

Edinboro Market

Edinboro Market opened in an Erie Street storefront late last year, and it has been making a name for itself in the months since.

The market is a nonprofit that aims to connect residents with locally grown and produced foods. As Marti Martz, president of the nonprofit, showed us around, we could see evidence of that commitment for ourselves: Jars of local honey lined a shelf. Locally grown greens burst from a display. Glass jugs of milk and wrapped packs of beef, all from area farms, filled a wall of coolers. At the front of the store is a counter for the Boro Sweet Shop, a for-profit bakery run by Curtis Hals, Martz’s husband.

Martz described her goal for the market as being almost an incubator of sorts for local growers, helping to connect those local food producers with the people who will buy the products.

The challenge for a lot of local farmers or other growers is the distribution of their products, and the market hopes to be able to address that issue.  In fact, the market’s status as a nonprofit means that income is returned to the growers.

We were joined in our visit to the market by Alex Iorio, of the Erie County Department of Health. The county department has been working hard to connect residents to fresh, local food sources, and the Edinboro Market fits perfectly into that objective.

Martz takes that mission a step further, though, not just offering local food but educating people about their food and where it comes from. To that end, she has been organizing classes at the market, including lessons on making homemade kombucha and yogurt, and one on raising backyard chickens. She also offers locally made soaps as well as products that promote sustainable living, like reusable bags and wraps.

As the market experiences its first summer food bounty, Martz seemed content with the nonprofit’s potential – and eager to find even more ways to help local growers flourish.

Goodell Gardens & Homestead

Our next stop, Goodell Gardens & Homestead, took us a little bit outside of Edinboro’s downtown, but still within the borough boundaries.

The Goodell grounds were quiet on this weekday afternoon, but during special events – like the Homegrown Harvest Festival or Summer Music Festival – the place can be packed with visitors.

In fact, as new executive director Amber Wellington told us, Goodell Gardens drew nearly 20,000 visitors in 2017, more than a 10 percent increase over 2016.

The day we visited was just Wellington’s second day on the job as executive director, but she had been with Goodell Gardens since 2011. She previously handled a variety of tasks – including event planning, development, public relations and membership – as assistant to the longtime executive director Dana Atwood, who passed away in September 2017.

Now she’s leading the tight-knit Goodell crew, which consists of five employees and dozens and dozens of volunteers – which are the lifeblood of the organization, she said.

Wellington spoke enthusiastically about plans for Goodell Gardens, which opened to the public in 2004.

The facility is on land donated by sisters Carrie and Margaret Goodell. The sisters lived in the family home on the land, and arranged for an endowment to help their wish – that their family homestead be turned into a public garden – become reality.

Today, that wish has been realized, with rustic gathering places, peaceful paths, fragrant greenery, and even Carrie’s private cabin open to visitors.

“We’re just trying to make it as beautiful as we can,” Wellington said.

Wellington and the staff have a vision for the future, backed by a master plan, that will create more opportunities for the public to gather and enjoy the gardens and green space. The goals for the future also include enhancing both the botanical and historical importance of Goodell Gardens.

Wellington spoke with enthusiasm about painstakingly restoring historic strucures and working with organizations like Erie Yesterday, and about exploring the idea of creating a network with other nature-focused organizations like Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier, Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, Environment Erie, Penn State Behrend’s arboretum and more.

“We’re really excited about the future of Goodell Gardens,” she said.

Edinboro Branch Library

Our last stop of the day was an open session with residents, always a highlight of our Exploring Erie County days. This time, we gathered inside the Edinboro Branch Library.

Edinboro’s library is one of the branches that operate as part of the Erie County Public Library. This branch library is unique, however, in that it holds a Literary Landmark designation from the American Library Association. It received the designation in 2017 to recognize Edinboro’s connection to the Newbery Medal-winning book “Miracles on Maple Hill,” by Virginia Sorensen.

On this day, the always-helpful staff at the library set us up in a cozy nook, where I was able to have a wide-ranging conversation with several Erie County residents.

We talked about Edinboro, of course, but also about the other communities that make up our county. One question broached the subject of all the investment and developments going on in downtown Erie, and what that means for the future of the city. I expressed that my vision for the future is that by strengthening the urban core in Erie, we will then be able to strengthen the other Erie County communities – including Edinboro and its neighbors in our southwestern corner.

Before we knew it, our time at the library was up, as was our day in Edinboro – but I couldn’t resist a quick stop back at the Edinboro Market before heading north on the highway back to Erie.

Exploring Erie County: Our day in Millcreek

In May, we made our fourth stop in my Exploring Erie County initiative. We spent some time exploring different areas of Millcreek Township.

Bistro 26

Our time exploring Millcreek Township started a little later in the day, with lunch at Bistro 26 on West 26th Street.

The restaurant, locally owned by George and Angie Gourlias, is warm and inviting with a unique menu that includes a mix of American and Mediterranean cuisine.

It also happens to be just across the street from the Millcreek Township building, so it was convenient for our lunch companion – Millcreek Township Supervisor Jim Bock.

Supervisor Bock is relatively new to the job, having just been sworn in to his first term in January. This is his first foray into elected office; he previously served as a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper for 25 years.

It was a nice chance to get to know a new supervisor, and to discuss some of the things happening in Millcreek – and how the county can lend a hand.

Supervisor Bock is the public safety administrator for the Township, which means he oversees police, emergency management and code enforcement and is the liaison to fire and emergency management.

This provided a good opportunity for us to talk about the county’s new Next Generation Public Safety Radio System, which is nearing completion after several years of work. The radio system will unite all emergency responders on a common frequency, replacing the fractured system that was used for decades – and that routinely put both first responders and citizens at risk.

We discussed the subcommittee that is forming through the Erie County Public Safety Advisory Committee. The group will be looking to address the decline of firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics in communities.

We also chatted a little about other ongoing county projects, like persistent stormwater issues, the newly created Erie County Land Bank, and a $5 car registration fee that will be given to municipalities to help fund badly needed bridge repairs.

After a lunch of great food and great conversation – and with no room for dessert, no matter how tempting it looked – we headed out to our next stop.

Presta Contractor Supply

Our visit to Presta Contractor Supply took us north to West 16th Street, where the Prestas have operated their business since launching it in 1984.

The current owner, Tim Presta, is the second generation to run the business, and he’s been on board since 1991.

The company mostly sells exterior building supplies, although they do sell some interior products as well. Their showroom features an array of samples, allowing customers to choose windows, wainscoting and more.

The company’s three-facility footprint stretches across the street from the showroom. On the north side of West 16th, Presta employees work on building pre-hung interior doors – a product the company has offered for about 20 years. It was one of the adjustments the business has made over the years to continue serving the needs of its customers.

And those customers themselves have changed in the decades that Presta Building Supply has been in business. The retail aspect (evidenced by the showroom) is a relatively new piece of the business, Tim Presta said, meant to serve a relatively new type of customer – those who want to be hands-on about buying the products, though they’ll then have someone else do the installation. Traditionally, the business served contractors who were buying equipment on behalf of customers. Presta Building Supply also sells to some do-it-yourselfers who buy the products and do the work on their own homes.

Those customers largely come from about a 65-mile radius, stretching into Chautauqua County, New York, Presta said. And the company itself is a customer for other businesses in northwestern Pennsylvania, as it buys a lot of native hardwoods like cherry, oak, poplar and maple from the region’s lumber mills.

In fact, the changing price of lumber is one of the challenges that Presta Building Supply routinely faces. Currently, for example, the price of lumber is the highest it has been in over a decade. Market factors that raise other costs also pose challenges: Aluminum and steel prices have increased, thanks to tariffs, and petroleum-related items, including shingles and transportation costs, are also rising. In addition, demand for home construction products nationally is up, as a result of damaging hurricanes and wildfires that have devastated other parts of the country over the past year. While these costs, and their trajectories, are out of Presta’s control, the company must find a way to meet the needs of customers while keeping prices reasonable.

Despite the challenges, Tim Presta enjoys the work, and his family business. He said he appreciates the challenges of working with new materials and the constant change in the business. “I love working on one project, and then moving on to another,” he said.

Erie County Conservation District

Our next stop brought us to the very southeastern edge of the sprawling township, which covers more than 30 square miles. The Erie County Conservation District is just north of Interstate 90, in the Belle Valley section of Millcreek.

The Erie County Conservation District was started in 1949 by farmers to promote sustainable agriculture. Today, that mission continues, along with broader goals of conservation and environmental education. Erie County’s Conservation District is among 66 county conservation districts in Pennsylvania – all counties have one except for Philadelphia. They were established under state law, and they work as a unit of county government, with board members appointed by county elected officials.

The Erie County Conservation District has plenty going on around its property on Wager Road. Also on that site is Headwaters Park, which the Conservation District operates and has been steadily transforming into a true community resource.

One new initiative, launched just a few weeks ago, is a Memorial Tree Trail. Members of the public are invited to memorialize or honor loved ones with a native tree, which will be planted at Headwaters Park.

District Manager Tom McClure and his staff are also continuing work on the Headwaters Park Master Plan. So far, some of that work has included a 900-foot trail expansion, the addition of an informational kiosk near the parking area and the transformation of some areas to native meadows. The Conservation District is working hard to enhance the park, with hopes to expand its footprint.

If you haven’t been out to Headwaters Park, I encourage you to check it out. Go for a hike, enjoy the native plants – and stop by the Conservation District for information or to buy a rain barrel for your home or business.

After our update on the Conservation District, we headed out on our final stop of the day, at the Millcreek Mall.

Millcreek Branch Library

This last visit brought us to yet another section of Millcreek Township, this one in the busy Peach Street shopping corridor. We stopped in for a public open house at the Erie County Public Library’s Millcreek Branch Library, located in the Millcreek Pavilion on Interchange Road.

The library branch recently underwent a bit of a renovation. It gained a new circulation desk, courtesy of Blasco Library, and that desk was relocated to the front of the branch. A reconfigured children’s area and some rearrangement of shelving units gave the branch a new look and a more user-friendly space.

On the day I was there, the Erie County Department of Health had a table set up to give library patrons important information about some summertime safety – including ticks, mosquitoes, algal blooms and picnic food safety.

It was against this busy but comfortable backdrop that I was able to discuss county issues with several concerned residents. We discussed broader community issues like urban sprawl and bayfront development, as well as some environmental issues like energy conservation, stormwater runoff, wind energy projects and more.

It was a lively conversation that provided a fitting cap on a fine day exploring Millcreek Township.

 

Exploring Erie County: Our day in North East

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.

Exploring Erie County: Our day in Corry

In March, we made our second stop in my new Exploring Erie County initiative. This time, we spent a beautiful, blue-sky day in Corry. Here are some highlights of the day’s adventures:

First stop

We started the day at Gigi’s Route 6 Diner for coffee and tea with a group of Corry residents who were interested in taking action to tackle drug addiction in their community.

We had an interesting discussion, and I appreciated hearing their voices. As an elected official, there is nothing more vital than hearing directly from citizens about the issues they face every day. And when it comes to an issue as damaging to a community as drug abuse, it does take a community-wide effort – elected officials and law enforcement, treatment providers and ordinary citizens – to fight back.

All too soon, we were off to our next stop: a tour of EnTech Plastics in the Corry Industrial Park. .

EnTech Plastics

EnTech Plastics is a well-known and long-established business in Corry, but it had its start elsewhere in Erie County.

Kevin and Sally Gearity launched their business in the City of Erie in 1996. When they soon outgrew their space, they began looking for new locations – and in 2001 they landed in Corry, where they remain an anchor in the Corry Industrial Park.

“Corry is a great place to do business,” said Skip Simmons, a partner in the company. He and Kevin Gearity point out the advantages, including assistance from the Corry Redevelopment Authority and ready access to local toolmakers and the resources of the Corry Higher Education Council and Penn State Behrend.

And EnTech has flourished in Corry.

As Kevin Gearity showed us around the facility, we could see that the company had far outgrown its origins with “two machines and two people,” as he described.

Today, more than 20 injection molding machines churn out plastic parts, and dozens of employees are hard at work on the shop floor.

The company makes and assembles injection molded plastics for a variety of industries, including lawn and garden, automotive, and medical. The company has about 50 permanent workers and also employs about 35 temporary workers.

Gearity said the hiring of temporary workers has helped EnTech to make better permanent hires, as some temporary workers are brought on to the permanent staff.

As we heard more about the business, it’s clear that the hiring adjustment is only one of several that has helped to change the company over the years.

Throughout our tour, Gearity pointed out various changes. An area of the facility has been set aside for blending work, a move that resulted in more efficient processes. The Quality department has expanded. The assembly work was added several years ago. EnTech has diversified its customer base. And now it is focusing on enhancing sales.

It’s part of a deliberate effort to continuously improve EnTech, Gearity said.

“We’re never satisfied with the status quo,” he said. “We always try to do better, to be better.”

Corry Public Library

After EnTech, we headed over to the Corry Public Library for my “Q&A with the County Executive” meet and greet.

I was thrilled to see that there were several Corry-area residents waiting to talk to me.

Over the course of the next hour, I had interesting conversations with several residents. Our topics included EMTA bus service and the still-incomplete Erie to Pittsburgh Trail, which would take bicyclists through Corry.

The trail is a particular interest of mine, as I am an avid cyclist. The trail, once complete, would start in the city of Erie, travel north along the lakeshore into New York State, and then cut down through the southeastern corner of Erie County on its way to Pittsburgh. It promises to bring plenty of bicyclists and tourists through the area, and I would love to see it linked to other routes across Erie County as well.

I was also pleased to have the opportunity to spend some time at the Corry Public Library, which is a bright and welcoming space. The Corry Public Library is an independent library – meaning that it is not one of the five branches of the Erie County Public Library. However, it is part of the Public Libraries of Erie County (PLEC) – which unites the Corry facility with the Erie County Public Library and five other independent libraries. This means that residents can borrow books and access materials at any of PLEC locations.

Once our time at the Corry Public Library was up, we headed out to another Corry library – the Library Bar and Grill.

Library Bar and Grill

The restaurant, located in the former home of the Corry library, still maintains a quaint historic atmosphere that would make any book-lover feel at home. Shelves line the walls, with plenty of both books and bottles on display.

We met up there with Corry Mayor David Mitchell for a quick lunch. Mitchell was a longtime Erie County Council member – he represented Council’s sprawling 6th District, which covers a large section of southeastern Erie County, from 1996 to 2009.

Mitchell shared some of what his visions are for Corry’s future, and also shared some memories of his past experiences with county government.

Before too long, it was time for our next appointment, and we headed out to Route 6.

Corry State Fish Hatchery

Our next stop was the Corry State Fish Hatchery, which is just outside Corry’s city limits in Wayne Township. At this time of year, the hatchery is busy stocking thousands of trout in creeks and streams across multiple counties.

The hatchery is one of 13 fish hatcheries across the state – including two others in Erie County – run by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. The Corry hatchery opened in 1876 and is the oldest continuously operating fish hatchery in the nation!

An informative visitor center at the site educates guests about the varieties of fish raised at the hatchery. Those fish – and there as many as 750,000 on site at any given time – fill various tanks and pools, depending on their size. Eggs are hatched in an indoor area. Once the young fish get to a specific size, they are moved outdoors to one of the dozens of concrete runs, sheltered by pavilions, that line the property.

Those long, rectangular pools are teeming with trout – including the spectacular golden trophy trout. As we walked, Dan Donato, the hatchery’s manager, pointed out the various sizes: fingerlings in one pool, medium-sized in another, and finally the big ones ready for stocking.

The fish that are stocked are generally 19-20 months old. So the trout that will be stocked into streams next year are already swimming around at the Corry hatchery.

One last stop

As our day in Corry drew to a close, we had one final stop to make. We were invited into a home to look at a sensory room that is being constructed for the family’s 9-year-old child, who is autistic.

Once completed, the room will have a variety of features and equipment, including soft surfaces and light panels, that can create a soothing atmosphere for an autistic child.

The work was made possible through Erie County Care Management, a nonprofit established by Erie County Council in 2006 that works to create a seamless system of care for children or adults in need of community services.

Have questions about the $5 vehicle registration fee?

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the extra $5 that Erie County residents will pay on their state vehicle registration. Here is some more information:

What is the $5 fee?

In December 2017, Erie County passed an ordinance that adds a $5 fee to the annual state cost of vehicle registration. While the regular vehicle registration money goes to PennDOT, all money raised by the fee will be returned to Erie County to be spent on local transportation projects.

Why did Erie County enact the fee?

Erie County had two incentives: First, the county will lose about $1.8 million in federal funding in 2020, which will reduce the county’s ability to repair our locally owned roads and bridges. In addition, PennDOT offered to give the county $2 million to be used for to repair structurally deficient locally owned bridges.

Do other counties do this?

Erie County is among 19 counties to enact the fee since the state’s Act 89 legislation, passed in 2013, made it possible to do so starting in 2015.

Who is exempt from paying the fee?

The fee applies to passenger vehicles, which includes RVs and trailers. Boats and ATVs are not part of this, as they are not registered through PennDOT. (Boats are registered through the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, and ATVs and snowmobiles are registered through the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.) The fee is only for non-exempt vehicles – residents who currently do not have to pay for vehicle registration also do not have to pay the $5 fee. The list of those exempt from paying vehicle registration is spelled out in Chapters 13 and 19 of the state Vehicle Code.

What happens to the money?

The $5 fee is expected to generate about $1.2 million each year, and every cent of that goes back to Erie County. It must be used for local transportation projects.

Who decides how it will be spent?

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is the governing transportation body of the county, will decide which local transportation projects will receive funding. Erie County oversees the MPO, but the group consists of officials from municipalities across the county, as well as representatives from the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority, the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Erie Regional Airport Authority and PennDOT. For a current list of members, click here.

What is the first priority?

Structurally deficient locally owned bridges top the to-do list. In Erie County, roads and bridges are owned by either the state or by local municipalities. Bridge inspections show that about 36 percent of locally owned – that is, those owned by municipalities – are structurally deficient, and five are closed. By comparison, only 4 percent of the state-owned bridges are structurally deficient.

How will the registration fee help?

Locally owned bridges are costly for municipalities to maintain, repair and replace, so their conditions have deteriorated. The revenue for this fee will address that by giving our local cities, boroughs and townships financial support. If not for this $5 fee, municipalities would have to resort to raising property taxes (which would place the burden of repairing roads on property owners, rather than on everyone who uses the roads) or not being able to repair these aging, deteriorating bridges.

Exploring Erie County: Our day in Fairview

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.

State of the County 2018

As I travel around Erie County, I see unmistakable signs of progress. What I see reinforces my conviction that the state of Erie County is strong – and growing stronger.

So as I speak about the state of Erie County, it is important to consider not just where we are, but also where we have been and where we are going.

When it comes to where we have been, I can’t help but think about Erie’s bayfront 20 years ago.

Some of you might remember the debate that was raging in the mid-1990s about the new location of the Erie County Public Library.

Blasco Library was being built on a bayfront that was unsightly and unwelcoming. Many citizens called the site a disastrous choice.

But local leaders had a vision – a vision for what the waterfront could and should be.

Ultimately, Blasco Library became a change agent for the bayfront, an anchor that sparked the transformation that soon followed.

Fast-forward to today. Erie’s bayfront is a welcoming space for residents and visitors alike, and it is recognized as an essential component in a broader, region-wide revitalization.

That brings us to where we are now.

As a county, we finally are sharing one vision and speaking with one voice.

We have come together to create and implement comprehensive plans for our region, our communities, and our neighborhoods.

Thanks to those plans, our urban core is undergoing a transformation.

Local partners have come together to create the Erie Innovation District, a hub for the emerging tech industry.

Businesses and private organizations have pledged more than $21 million to create the Erie Downtown Development Corporation.

And we are seeing evidence of more than half a billion dollars in new construction projects.

The City of Erie, guided by the Erie Refocused comprehensive plan, is forging a new future.

This revitalization, sparked by Emerge 2040, is also occurring in surrounding communities – Millcreek and Summit, Edinboro and Albion.

I can say with confidence that this regional momentum is shaping our future and determining where we are going.

Through collaboration and innovation, we are rebuilding Erie County. And in county government, we are championing change that promises to revitalize every community in every corner of our county.

To guide us in that process, we rely on the Emerge 2040 plan – a blueprint established by the input of thousands of residents, like you, who spoke up and identified the most pressing needs.

County government is working to do our part to fulfill the vision that you, the citizens, set forth.

The Erie County Planning Department has been at the forefront of the development of plans that are leading our municipalities into that future.

The Erie County Department of Human Services is working to aid our most vulnerable citizens, including finding innovative strategies to combat the opioid epidemic.

The Erie County Department of Public Safety has improved communications countywide, helping first responders keep all residents and visitors safe.

The Erie County Department of Health has been a community leader in supporting whole-body health for our entire community – including through a collaboration to bring the Blue Zones Project here.

And the Erie County Public Library – the epicenter of debate 20 years ago – remains a force for change in our community, most recently with the addition of the Idea Lab.

Just like the brick-and-mortar Blasco changed the bayfront landscape two decades ago, the Idea Lab promises to help change our economy. As a resource for all citizens, it serves as an entry point to the innovation that is taking root in our community.

That entrepreneurial spirit is essential to our economic future, playing an equal role with our efforts to shore up our industries and train our workers. In these things, too, Erie County has been a leader.

We have set young people onto career paths with the Summer Jobs and More program.

We have partnered with other agencies to create Up For the Job – a unified, one-stop shop for businesses looking for a great place to locate.

And we have answered the call of our employers by supporting a proposed Erie County Community College.

Let’s be honest – some of these initiatives have ushered in public debate, just as the Blasco Library did two decades ago.

Now, as then, we must remain committed to a vision for a more vibrant community, and we must follow the Emerge 2040 blueprint that will help us get there.

We also must guard against forces within ourselves that could threaten progress.

Will we be paralyzed by indecision or fear of the unknown, or will we step forward and embrace this vision for our future?

Will we be mired in the missteps of the past, or will we allow our community – our county – to emerge into the thriving place we imagined?

Will we continue to operate in individual siloes, separated from our neighbors? Or will we unite in common purpose to build a better Erie County?

These decisions are up to each one of us.

We have seen where we’ve been.

We know where we are.

And we have envisioned what we want to become – a place that we are proud to call home, and a place that offers a vibrant future for our children and grandchildren.

Let us come together to realize that goal. Let us not be afraid to dream big – and to demand the best for our community.

It is only together – as committed partners, as engaged citizens, as neighbors and friends – that we can truly move Erie County forward.

 

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