Inviting Warren To The ‘Destination’

The plan is called Destination Erie, but it includes a five-county area.

Warren County’s interest in the project was the subject of a Tuesday morning meeting at the Conewango Club.

A group of community leaders discussed where to focus efforts for long-term economic development.

There are five parts to the Destination Erie plan, with most of them focused on Erie County. The economy and workforce segment of the plan is the regional part.

And, while there are five parts to the plan – the economy and workforce is the biggest – about half of the whole program, according to Jake Rouch, vice-president, economic development, Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership.

“We wanted to talk about the issues that are slowing down growth,” Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness (CREC) President Ken Poole said. “Warren County is part of a bigger whole as far as how the economy functions.”

Destination Erie includes Warren and Crawford counties, Ashtabula County, Ohio, and Chautauqua County, N.Y.

“If you don’t have a plan, you’re allowing fate to decide where you’re going to go,” Rouch said. “We needed to look at big issues that were facing the region. Now we’re moving into the action part of the equation.”

“You have to pick some bigger spots on the horizon that you’re going to go for,” he said. “This is shaping a 20 to 30 year vision. We’ve got to start planting the seeds of the big investments we want to make.”

The Destination Erie working group meets Thursday, and Tuesday’s meeting was intended to make sure Warren County’s priorities are represented there.

Poole presented 15 possible ideas to focus on and said he hoped to narrow that list to three. Limiting the goals is necessary because of limited resources. “You have to make some bets on the future,” Rouch said. “There are limited chips… where to bet them?”

The ideas were in three particular areas: preparing future workers, managing risk and encouraging entrepreneurial spirit, and developing leadership.

The Warren County panel included: Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry President and CEO Jim Decker, Warren County commissioners John Eggleston and Stephen Vanco, Intergovernmental Council Chairman John Zavinski, WCCBI board member Sonia Probst, Richard Bimber from Rep. Kathy Rapp’s office, Lincoln Sokolski (president) and Greg Lief (human resources director) of Whirley Drinkworks, Acting City Manager Mary Ann Nau and Police Chief Ray Zydonik of the City of Warren, Alan Kugler of PA Futures, and Ed Fosnaught, northwest region representative of the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) Governor’s Center, in addition to Rouch, Poole and Ron Kelly of CREC.

Narrowing the field was a difficult task. For example, workforce development and job creation have to run “in parallel,” Decker said. “We can’t encourage people to go out and acquire a certain skillset unless we have a job waiting.”

Much of the discussion was taken up on the topic of education. Some of the suggestions were starting at the early childhood level and encouraging better work ethic, and switching from an educational focus on going on to a four-year degree and allowing employers to teach workers the skills they need.

In the entrepreneurial section, Decker suggested providing support to new and existing businesses for changes other than those that will add jobs. Vanco said business leaders, not professors, should teach entrepreneurs.

Zavinski suggested playing to the strengths of the area.

“Marketing our strengths,” Kugler said, “we have completely failed to do that.”

“There has been, over time, a lack of commitment to economic development,” Kugler said. “We have to commit to do these things. We have to want to do these things.”

Eggleston suggested that plentiful water and energy could be the lure that brings the next wave of population growth to northwestern Pennsylvania.

Rouch said Warren County is ahead of the curve in some areas. “You have done a lot of the things that the rest of the region need to see,” he said. “You’re not done. There is no done. There is no finish line.”

The Destination Erie program is funded by federal Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, and Environmental Protection Agency.

According to Rouch, one of the benefits of being a member of Destination Erie is a stronger position when applying for HUD dollars.

“The easiest way for people to get out of helping you is not to ask them,” Rouch said. “We have to start all working together.”

While the leaders were willing to work in a regional effort, they stressed that Warren County and its communities must keep their identities. “I like regional approaches,” Nau said. “There have to be some protections for the core community.”

“Our regional assets are our cities and towns,” Kugler said. “They have to be vibrant.”