This article was originally published by Pat Howard on GoErie.com on November 13, 2016.
I drove by the Rothrock Building downtown on Friday afternoon on the way back from Erie County Councilman Jay Breneman's mayoral announcement. It has seen better days.
But an architects' sign out front signals better days ahead. It's among the harbingers of a community mustering its forces for what amounts to its last chance to arrest and reverse Erie's decades-long slide.
That tired old West 10th Street office building, built just as the city's population peaked with the 1960 census, bottomed out as an illegal flophouse not even 10 years ago. Now it's poised to become the headquarters of a homegrown high-tech company, Velocity Network, whose founder and CEO has declared himself all in on bringing Erie back.
Joel Deuterman has said he will pay about $1.6 million for the building and surrounding properties included in his plans. The total investment could reach $8 million, he said.
"Erie is growing short of time,"
No, we can't.
Earlier Friday, another homegrown company issued a vital sign for Erie's comeback. Erie Insurance Group announced it will invest $135 million to build a 346,000-square-foot office building on East Sixth Street across from its headquarters.
Erie Insurance, too, is all in. And the chairman of the Fortune 500 company's board, Thomas Hagen, whose late wife was the daughter of the company's co-founder, placed that investment squarely in the context of the comprehensive plan.
"Helping to build a vibrant Erie community and further support the Erie Refocused plan is essential to our company's success and for all who live and work here," Hagen said.
Also essential to aspirations for a resurgent Erie is addressing one of the community's most glaring deficits — a chronic shortage of engaged, catalytic political leadership. Erie residents will soon have a chance to do something about that.
In becoming the first candidate to formally announce a 2017 mayoral run, Breneman, 34, went straight at that, explicitly calling out three-term Mayor Joe Sinnott and his crimped view of the office's role and responsibilities. We'll see whether Breneman can make the case that he's the right person to take the rudder, but he has the broad outlines right.
The first-term county councilman chose a lower eastside park as the location for his announcement. The significance he attached to that spot is an indicator of a broader vision for leadership that needs to be at the heart of the mayoral race.
Breneman said he picked Wayne Park — "at the intersection of East High and Wayne School" — because it is flanked by schools where Erie's children are being educated by a cash-starved school system. Things have gotten to the point, that system's leader said, that those schools are providing "a separate but unequal education," invoking loaded language from the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education.
Erie schools Superintendent Jay Badams said those words Thursday in providing the Erie Times-News Editorial Board with an update on the Erie School District's efforts to develop a financial recovery plan to pitch to the state. Breneman chose the place to announce his run to emphasize that Erie's school funding crisis is City Hall's problem as well.
Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper was a regular presence at the various public meetings on that crisis last spring and summer. The mayor, as usual, was conspicuous by his absence and silence, as Breneman pointedly noted to his audience on Friday.
"The Sinnott administration will tell you the mayor has nothing to do with Erie's public schools. ... I disagree," he said.
"A strong mayor would lead our students and their teachers and administrators as they rally in Harrisburg for fair funding," Breneman said. "A strong mayor would work with the school administration to develop solutions to the problems that plague our schools. And a strong mayor would never go unseen when the children of this city fall victim to violence."
Breneman will likely be one of a number of candidates seeking to succeed Sinnott, who reaches the three-term limit at the end of 2017. But on Friday he staked out ground that must be covered by anyone running in what could be the most consequential election in Erie's history.
Badams has provided aggressive, heroic direction at the Erie School District, though the strain shows. What Erie's up against demands correspondingly energetic, collaborative and galvanizing leadership at City Hall.
As Joel Deuterman warned, Erie is limping along on borrowed time. Even the remaining 14 months of the status quo feel like too long to wait.