Erie’s Rust Belt activism


America’s advanced industries—the 50 critical manufacturing, energy, and service industries that invest most in R&D and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workers—continue to provide an economic lift in many American regions.

No less than 23 of the largest 100 metropolitan areas across the country—led by Nashville, Tennessee, and Kansas City, Missouri—saw employment in this well-paying sector expand by at least 4 percent a year in the last two years, according to the Metro Program’s recent update.

Overall nearly half (47) of the nation’s larger metro areas increased the share of their workers engaged in these highly productive industries that are prerequisites for inclusive growth, which is a good thing—it means that nearly half of the nation’s large metros are making progress towards deep, durable advanced prosperity.

And yet, what about the other places? What about Erie, Pennsylvania, for example? Erie is one of the several hundred large and small American metros for whom the data is not now trending in a particularly promising direction.

Encamped at the state’s far northwest corner by its eponymous lake, Erie was once a manufacturing juggernaut, but has seen steady manufacturing and population declines since 1960.

In 1980, some 45,000 manufacturing jobs accounted for 40 percent of the region’s private employment, figures that have now dwindled to 26,000 jobs and 20 percent of employment. These recent numbers reflect a modest rebound since the recession, but in the last two years the numbers have been discouraging. Following the post-crisis recovery, the metro has shed nearly two percent of its advanced-industries employment, including hundreds of jobs in the gigantic GE Transportation factory just east of town, which makes high-tech locomotives and related equipment. The plant grew in the immediate recovery years but recently laid off 1,500 workers and will probably lay off more.

In short, Erie is one of the scores of Rust Belt metropolitan areas in which advanced-sector growth is now trailing the growth of the rest of the economy—meaning that lower-value, lower-pay activities are gaining sway. Erie is a place that poses the nagging question: What can a place that has fallen behind do about that?

Yet here Erie’s answers are thoughtful, active, optimistic, and experimental. Faced with tough realities, an energetic circle of younger leaders has been working intently to change those realities, with a focus on the region’s advanced industries.

Over the last few years, the local Jefferson Educational Society has invited numerous national experts on cities and city economies to Erie to provide advice. (Last year the list included Brookings Centennial Scholar Bruce Katz and myself). Likewise, the Society published a detailed paper of its own, drilling down on the region’s 27 advanced industries with data supplied by Brookings. Through such investigation and other inquiries, the region has worked to understand its current situation and develop a data-informed, authentic strategy for strengthening the Erie economy by expanding its advanced industries, in keeping with its manufacturing past. The region’s younger civic and business leaders have militantly bought into the need to bolster the fundamental inputs to advanced-sector growth by strengthening the metro’s innovation capacity, its STEM skills, and its “ecosystem” dynamics.

Nor has the region’s civic leadership been content to simply strengthen innovation, skills, and the ecosystem. Urgent and activist, Erie leaders are trying a lot of stuff. They want to be “actors in their own drama, rather than just being acted-upon,” as The Atlantic’s James Fallows remarked in a post after a recent visit.

On the innovation front, Penn State Behrend—the local four-year campus in the Penn State system—has launched a series of initiatives aimed at stimulating collaborative technology commercialization with a focus on speeding Erie’s transition from commodity manufacturing to advanced manufacturing. Having earlier co-located the campus’ schools of business and engineering under one roof, the school has embraced an “open laboratory” philosophy aimed at catalyzing constant collaborations between students and faculty, on the one hand, and business-and-industry engineers and technicians, on the other. Then, in July, the college held the grand opening of its new Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center, a $16.5-million applied tech hub that will seek to eliminate barriers between academic and industry partners who want to collaborate on technology development projects in Erie. All of this ties into the region’s comprehensive tech-startup initiative Ignite Erie, which links the region’s universities, entrepreneurs, and finance people in a push to spawn new enterprises in the city. Explains Chancellor Ralph Ford: “Innovation most often occurs where people and ideas intersect. By co-locating students, faculty members, and industry partners in shared space, with access to the region’s most advanced technology, we are removing many of the obstacles that can limit the development or refinement of products.”

Turning to STEM skills, the region’s energetic Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority—an interesting philanthropic story in its own right—has been flooding the zone with grants instigating or supporting technical education and training of all sorts (along with regional economic development). ECGRA funding is helping expand the region’s new STEM Works program, which incorporates STEM lessons into existing public-school curricula. What focused last school year on Grades 3, 4, and 6 will now go K-12-wide. Moreover, the initiative will include a “STEM Academy” approach for select 10th- through 12th-graders. The academy will feed into local advanced-manufacturing jobs. Likewise, the agency has purchased 3-D printers, laser cutters, and metal-cutting machines for every high school in Erie County. These will support a locally developed “maker space” curriculum. Similarly, the City of Erie School District’s Central Tech High School has embraced the value of vocational education. Through hands-on projects designed to foster practical problem-solving, students are immersed in diverse environments that mimic a range of manufacturing plants.

And finally, the region’s young civic leaders have ardently embraced the power of regional ecosystems and have sought to foster a spirit of networked, place-based high-tech entrepreneurship. With the old order of vertically integrated, “closed” shops declining, Penn State Behrend, Mercyhurst University, the Jefferson Society, and ECGRA have taken a series of steps to catalyze and foster “open,” networked business development. Last year Penn State and Mercyhurst matched a $750,000 ECGRA grant to support open and inclusive business acceleration. This May, ECGRA and Bridgeway Capital (a nonprofit community-development financial institution) partnered to make available $5 million in entrepreneurship and growth loans for manufacturing firms and small businesses in Erie County. And just last month, a successful local entrepreneur named Joel Deuterman announced he was moving his IT-solutions company, Velocity Network, to a now-vacant building downtown and that he would be investing in restaurants, cafes, streetscape improvements, and a co-work space for tech startups in the area to make downtown more attractive for working and living.  Regardless of how it all turns out, the move is another example of action rather than drift.

Ultimately, Erie is working to answer the question, “What about the other places?,” not with a definitive result but with a hopeful, activist perspective. It has a vision and is trying stuff. As Fallows writes: “Being active, rather than passive, is one working definition of today’s American Idea.”

The Jefferson Educational Society and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority have provided support in the past to the Metropolitan Policy Program as members of its Metropolitan Council, a network of business, civic, and philanthropic leaders that acts as a financial and intellectual partner of the program.