By Dan Allott
ERIE, Pa. — Residents of Erie County — maybe the swingiest county in the biggest state that swung to Donald Trump — have witnessed a steady stream of reporters from the national media visit their county over the last six months in an attempt to understand how President Trump won.
Actually, scratch that.
Talk to residents here in Erie, and they’ll tell you most of the journalists who have parachuted in to cover Trump’s improbable victory have not come on a mission of understanding, but arrived with their dreary conclusions already drawn.
Sean Fedorko, co-founder of Radius CoWork in Erie, said the thrust of most of the coverage boils down to, “`Here’s our story about a sad Rust Belt town and the people who are angry about its change and we just fill in the names.’” The subtext is usually that only economic desperation could explain why counties that previously voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama subsequently voted for Trump.
The depiction of Erie as in decline is not totally without merit. Erie has lost half its manufacturing jobs since the 1980s. Drive along the city’s 12th Street corridor and you’ll see a couple blocks of shuttered warehouses and rusting factories. Job losses forced roughly 10,000 people to move out of Erie County during a six-year period between 2010 and 2016.
But the negative portrayal of Erie is incomplete. Erie is more accurately seen as a county in transition, and one with some notable signs of promise.
Exhibit A in the media’s one-sided treatment of Erie is a CBS News documentary that aired in February titled, “America: Manufacturing hope.” The 20-minute video starts with an elderly woman recounting how six men were laid off by the county’s largest employer, GE Transportation. One of the men was her brother, she tearfully explains as ominous music plays in the background. In the piece, Erie is referred to as a “sinking ship” that “you’d be crazy not to get off” and as “a community [that] has lost the means to provide for its people.”
Many people here saw the documentary as an egregious piece of journalistic malpractice. “The documentary gave Erie a very bad name,” said David Moore, a manufacturer and construction worker I met at an Erie Applebee’s. It focused on “all the negative of Erie, all the blight, all the violence” and didn’t reflect how most people here feel about Erie. The negative treatment in the CBS News piece even prompted a backlash in the form of social media campaigns #notmyerie and #myerie.
At least three $100 million-plus building projects are beginning in Erie this year, a $135 million expansion of Erie Insurance that could make room for an additional 600 employees, and $100 million-plus expansions of both Erie hospitals, UPMC Hamot and Saint Vincent’s. It also boasts five universities, including the nation’s largest medical school.
At 6 percent, Erie’s unemployment and poverty rates are only slightly higher than the state and national averages, and the share of adults here with a college degree is only slightly lower.
Erie is going through the growing pains that usually accompany economic diversification. In Erie’s case, it is shifting from an economy based mainly on manufacturing to a more balanced one made up of manufacturing, medicine, education, service, tech and more.
Residents here are quick to list of some of Erie’s other attributes, including its low cost of living, beautiful scenery, beaches, symphony and sports teams, as well as Presque Isle State Park, a sandy peninsula that extends into Lake Erie and is visited by 4 million people annually.
Erie is also quite welcoming, which explains why nearly one in five Erie City residents is a refugee. “Erie is not down and out,” Moore said. “Where we live, we’ve lived there for the past four years and we still live in that type of neighborhood where everybody watches out for one another.”
Erie’s challenge will be in attracting young people, especially those with college degrees who want to build businesses and start families here. And some say that’s already starting to happen.
Barbara Chaffee, president and CEO of the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, said that while a lot of people in Erie talk about the problem of “brain drain,” the emigration of well-educated people out of an area, she’s seeing what she calls “brain gain”—talented Erie residents who move away only to return to start a family and settle down.
“It’s amazing how many requests we get for, ‘I want to come back now. …I have a family now. Can you give us some advice on a job or what positions are open?’” she said. “We see a lot of that bounce back.”
Katrina Vincent, director of Real Estate for the Erie County Redevelopment Authority, said that while the CBS News video and other negative media portrayals put economic leaders and residents in the county on the defensive, most people here are optimistic about the future.
Erie is “starting to get its mojo back,” she said.
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© Washington Examiner 2017