How Erie Plans to Spend $150 Million to Revitalize Its Downtown

The city "hit rock bottom," but it has plans to bounce back

Erie Insurance Headquarters in the H. O. Hirt Building. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Erie Insurance Headquarters in the H. O. Hirt Building. (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
By Bonnie Stiernberg / October 7, 2019 11:59 am

Like many industrial cities in the Rust Belt, Erie, Pennsylvania has struggled in recent decades thanks to lost manufacturing jobs, but as a recent article by the Wall Street Journal notes, the city has plans to spend $150 million from a mixture of public and private sources to revitalize its downtown and breathe new life into its local economy.

As the Journal points out, Erie has lost 30 percent of its population since 1960, and 27 percent of its population is currently living below the federal poverty line (a relatively high percentage compared to the national rate of 14.6 percent). By 2016, 4700 of its 44,000 homes were vacant or abandoned. “We hit rock bottom,” Tom Hagen,  chairman of Erie Insurance, told the publication. “I compare it to an alcoholic who has to be in the gutter before he or she sees the light.”

In 2016, the city created the Erie Innovation District with a $4 million grant. The organization recruits roughly 10 technology startups a year to come to Erie for a 10-week accelerator program with the aim of creating local jobs. The following year, some of its biggest employers founded the nonprofit Erie Downtown Development Corp. aimed at breathing new life into the city’s downtown and kicked in to a $27.5 million equity fund to support redevelopment projects. This year, Erie Insurance announced a $50 million opportunity-zone fund that will invest in the area.

Ultimately, Erie Mayor Joe Schember sees this as a crucial moment in the city’s history. “A lot of people in Erie think we might have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn it around,” he said. “And if we miss it, we might not have another chance.”

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