I like to talk.
I was reminded of that this morning when I came into the office and the receptionist said with a smile: “Remember that person you saw yesterday afternoon? Her daughter, who waited for her, said after you left, that you were the first person she ever saw who was able to out-talk her mother. And she said it as a compliment.”
Thank goodness for that last statement. Lord knows my mouth has gotten me into more trouble that most people ever see. And from time to time, the trouble I get into is by talking about Erie.
When many people think of Erie, they think of the lake, of course, but they think old and undesirable. There is some justification for both: the population, like so many rust belt cities, is aging, and downtown, a shadow of its peak, continues to lose businesses, even with the events that are staged every summer.
It pains me to walk down State Street and see the “For Lease” signs where prominent businesses used to be. They drew everyone who shopped for everything, especially now, when back to school clothes and classroom items were on people’s lists. And while there are some newer restaurants still coming aboard, several others are gone or nearly empty when I walk by at dinnertime on a weekday.
But Erie still has great potential. Part of it comes from its people, who consider themselves survivors. They have survived the loss of so many anchor businesses. They have survived the recessions. They have survived all of the bad press that Erie gets, some on target, some not. And the young people who have stayed carry the torch for a better city like they are running with the Olympic Flame.
Erie has something that no other place in Pennsylvania, and few places in the United States, has: the Peninsula. Presque Isle peninsula is a wonder of our entire commonwealth. I experience the joys of Presque Isle a lot. In the late morning, I took a run along the Bayfront which has the peninsula as a backdrop, and on my way home, I stopped to gaze at one of the typical spectacular sunsets over Presque Isle. This morning, I was up at 5:15 and headed to the peninsula for a sunrise walk/run that included beach time.
With this wonder of the world sitting right across from downtown, why is Erie something my friends kid about?
“You’re in Erie? Why would you want to be THERE?” my friends ask.
Part of the reason I love it here is because of its people. They are survivors. They have survived the loss of anchor businesses. They have survived the loss of their young people. They are still here, fighting. And those in their twenties and thirties are carrying the torch like an Olympic Flame, trying to keep it lit until the people in power get it right.
Erie still has The Peninsula. But it hasn’t taken advantage of this resource the way Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Cleveland have taken advantage of theirs. Pittsburgh has connected its riverfronts to downtown and its neighborhoods on all sides and has grown trails throughout the city; and people have responded en masse. Cleveland has its sports teams, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a thriving downtown, at least in part because of these amenities.
Buffalo is growing in stature everyday as it has now learned to harness its lakefront and turn its low cost of living into a lure for people.
So what will it take to make it right in Erie?
Connect Presque Isle to downtown. Yes, yes, I know that people give reasons it can’t be done. For one, there is the use of the waterways: won’t boating and shipping be affected if there is a bridge built? My answer: they have had draw bridges for centuries. Don’t tell me an appropriate bridge can’t be designed. Show me how it can be designed.
The preservationists say that this will have a negative impact on the natural look of the area. I understand, so let’s build a bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists only to reduce its size. And while even a small bridge would have a negative impact on the area, it would be minimal if the bridge was located on the tip of the peninsula where it is closest to the mainland. Think of the benefits: people biking and walking on the peninsula can traverse the bridge, looking for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or just for a break. Shops can get their attention; so can interesting places to stay for the next time.
It is not a particularly pleasant bike ride from downtown to the peninsula now, but with the connector bridge, that is no longer an issue. People can stay downtown and ride to Presque Isle instead of having to load their bikes onto the rack which dent their trunk anyway. Instead of people coming to Presque Isle for a day, they will now make it multiple days. After a while, the mainland attractions will rebuild the downtown area while also making waterfront shopping much more of a must-do item.
Will it take a while to rebuild? Of course. But if this bridge can get done now, the rebuilding starts now. If the bridge doesn’t get done, what else can possibly bring people back?
It’s time for Erie to stop saying what can’t be done; it is time to start doing. Figure 10 to 15 years to make things better and 25 years to make it outstanding. So let’s start now.