The WE in Northwest PA

Visiting Erie County

Lake ErieWe spent April 7 in Erie County—on the shores of Lake Erie, where vestiges of ice could be see across the sand. Our host, Bob Wooler, Director of The Nonprofit Partnership, graciously set up meetings on our behalf with a variety of individuals and groups. Our first meeting, hosted by United Way of Erie County, included the following staff of United Way: Bill Jackson, President and Chief Professional Officer; Del Birch, Vice-President, Community Building; Mike Jaruszewicz, Community Building Manager; R.J. Zonna, Senior Vice-President; along with representatives from the Erie Community Foundation: Michael Batchelor, President; and George Espy, Vice President of Community Impact.

We then had a lovely conversation with Kathy Dahlkemper, Erie County Executive, in her offices at the Erie County Courthouse. From there, we joined the group of 50+ nonprofit representatives engaged in a training offered by The Nonprofit Partnership in the beautiful facilities of the Manufacturing and Business Association. During their roundtable discussions around grant writing, PANO engaged in short, “speed dating” conversations about what the group loves about their community and what they would like to be different.

We were warmly welcomed and we thoroughly enjoyed the conversations with all parties and want to say THANK YOU to those in Erie County who made this possible.

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Capturing the Pride of Community

Individuals living in Erie County stated that they loved Erie County because:

  • Relationships really matter; small, friendly, close knit community so you can know a lot of people
  • Generous, nurturing, caring and philanthropic community
  • Great place to raise a family, to grow old and to retire—part because Erie has a number of free things to do and community events for people of all ages
  • Great quality of life due to low crime rate (2nd safest city in the nation), low cost of living and the benefits of living in a small town with access to Lake Erie and religious institutions, and the zoo
  • Easy access to larger cities (e.g. Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburg, Toronto)
  • Cultural activities and the arts (e.g. philharmonic, playhouse, art museums, artists, small theatre groups)
  • Diversity—one of the top two places for refugee resettlement in PA; Erie warmly welcomes these immigrants
  • Many outdoor activities all year round, including winter and summer sports
  • Presque Isle Park, Asbury Woods
  • The sunsets
  • Advantages of a larger city without the big city problems
  • Convenience
  • Erie has great potential
  • Ability to make change happen, due to the manageable size of the community
  • College Town, with 16,000 students enrolled, out of a community of 280,000, in four colleges/universities
  • People live in Erie County because they want to
  • Erie County has strong local nonprofits that do extraordinary things; these organizations have a lot of strong talent
  • The Nonprofit Partnership and their capacity building work
  • Organizations, such as environmental and arts organizations ,work well together
  • Partnership between funders (United Way and the Community Foundation) are strong
  • The County has strong relationships to both Harrisburg and DC, in part because the County Executive was a member of Congress
  • People come back to Erie after they leave because it is home
  • Great restaurants

Areas for Ongoing Engagement

Following are the things we heard as issues from people living in Erie County, listed in no particular order.

Erie County wants to build a Model Community—one that others will want to emulate

  •  Example: Erie County has a strong county health department

Need to retain younger generation—especially the college students that are graduating

  • This may occur if the city developed incentives for small, entrepreneurial business
  • Technology today allows young entrepreneurs to work in the more isolated city of Erie vs. DC; the community should capitalize on this.
  • Though 81% of high school students graduate, few college graduates stay around to work in Erie
  • The younger generation that does live in Erie is growing. They want to invest back into the community, to rebrand and redevelop, making an investment in technology and small business.   Many people have the drive needed to make it a better place to live.

More economic development needs to occur, especially along the waterfront

  • Galleries and smaller gift shops
  • Small businesses
  • Need building renovation so that national organizations would be more likely to invest in the community
  • Need grocery/fresh foods downtown
  • Need shops for women

Attracting industries that bring jobs to the community

  • Poverty level is an ongoing struggle
  • Keep current health care institutions because people are more likely to stay due to getting good care

Workforce development is needed

  • Workforce training dollars from Harrisburg have been significantly reduced; small business and nonprofits often cannot afford to do training on their own

Need more engagement from local politicians

Need more representation at the state level

  • State representative lives in Butler County, not Erie County
  • State funding is often not seen in Erie because they are compared to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia
  • Erie recently dropped to being 4th vs. 3rd largest city in the state; this has negatively affected the influx of state funding to the community—similar to the decrease in funding when Governor Ridge left office

 Advocacy: Connection to State and Federal Issues

  • Monitor issues and keep informed on statewide issues
  • Keep people informed before crisis moments—particularly at the state level
  • Large nonprofits have a Harrisburg presence; others do not
  • Local paper does not cover what occurs in Harrisburg
  • Would like to know more about larger state and federal funding initiatives
  • Understanding how to connect with state and federal legislators. Smaller nonprofits do not know how to do this.
  • In terms of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, Erie County does not need assistance as local organizations cut deals with local government; this is a local, not a state issue
  • Advocacy is needed for organizations that work with veterans
  • Information needed about government contracting

Be “research arm” of the sector, collect and share data regarding what is happening around the state

  • Share practices of what is working in other communities
  • Research issue critical to work being done around the state
  • Be a resource that others can draw from
  • Would be helpful to have an aggregation of resources available at the state level.

Convene the Management Support Organizations around the state to better serve communities

  • Be the “mother ship” of Management Support Organizations
  • Be the management support organization for rural PA areas
  • Convene Executive Directors of management support organizations to identify outcomes measures, create industry scans and help these organizations create their own measures

 Covene grantmakers/foundations around the state

  • Regional grantmakers’ associations exist, but these associations do not talk about both nonprofits and foundation issues on a statewide basis

Be the voice that unites a divided sector

Put together a health insurance plan for nonprofit organizations, with discounted products/services

Public safety needs to be improved

More technology is needed

Nonprofits/individuals do not always know where to go for resources

Awareness of the strengths of Erie County need to be promoted

Various groups need to work better together

Technical assistance is needed around nonprofit management needs

A special shout-out to PANO board member, Michael Kumer, for making the initial connections to Erie County and Bob Wooler for this Listening Tour. Another shout-out to PANO board member, Drew Goldstein, who joined us for the first two conversations on April 7. Thanks, again, to Bob Wooler and Michael Brand of The Nonprofit Partnership, for the work they did in setting up these meetings and for the delicious dinner we shared at the historic Pufferbelly Restaurant. Erie Frog

And as always, a special thanks to Maher Duessel, CPAs for partnering with PANO to make this Listening Tour Possible!


If you want to join the conversation and participate in some way, don’t want to wait until we come to your community.

At PANO, WE are not interested in PANO—we are interested in what WE can do with all of you.  Join us.  Join the WE!



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