Big support for small businesses in downtown Erie

Erie Voice by Paula Mehle
Erie Voice by Paula Mehle

A revitalized historic downtown had been a community aspiration for decades. That’s why a few years ago, the town of Erie set out to create a downtown that provides a genuine small-town feel with all the reassuring qualities that implies — a family-friendly neighborhood full of thriving businesses and loaded with activities and special events. So when a local family decided to turn our old fire station into Echo Brewery, we had a hunch we were onto something.

The town of Erie’s “Fire Station to Brewpub Civic Building Reuse Project” is to date our best example of a successful public/private partnership that has served as a catalyst for further downtown retail business development, which in turn attracts a greater number of visitors.

Located on the most prominent corner of historic downtown Erie, the 2,500-square-foot building (what also has been referred to as a garage with a restroom) originally was constructed in 1969 and served as the community’s only fire station until 2002.  In August 2013, the Board of Trustees approved a Lease/Purchase Agreement with Echo Brewery and just over a year later Echo celebrated its grand opening. This project preserves and enhances the unique character and vitality of Erie’s historic downtown commercial core while simultaneously converting an underutilized building into a community gathering space.

The town’s first public/private partnership with a downtown business did not go unnoticed, rather it was a signal to others that their decision to invest in Erie would be supported. (Other businesses include: Industrial Revolution Brewing Co., Old Mine Cidery, Sweets Ice Cream & Bakery, 24 Carrot American Bistro and Gaucho de Argentina Empanadas.)

It is gratifying to watch as our investment in downtown is paying dividends. True, some of the payback is represented in sales tax revenue, but in a much larger sense we have activated a once-neglected community neighborhood, resulting in a return on investment that goes beyond revenue generation.

Now that new storefronts have opened up, how do we keep the momentum going? That’s the question that our small businesses — the entrepreneurs who have a real stake in dowtown Erie’s continued success, ask us. The answer? Continue to develop, program and market downtown as a destination.

We’re doing just that. In 2015, the town contracted with a new vendor with a proven track record to reactivate the Erie Farmers Market in the historic downtown. Attendance during the inaugural year necessitated an expansion to a second block in downtown for the 2016 market. Foot traffic has since increased dramatically drawing residents to the rejuvenated area to discover the new restaurants and brewpubs that are putting life back into the neighborhood.

This year, we kicked off the Downtown Neighborhood Block Party, a new venue created as a community-building event centered in downtown Erie for all of our residents to enjoy while at the same time promoting local businesses, restaurants and breweries. The block party actually is a series of family-friendly events scheduled for three Fridays in July.

With an eye on the long term, the Board of Trustees recently approved the development of a Downtown Redevelopment Framework Plan to address the needs of Erie’s Historic Downtown Business District including a design concept for Coal Creek Park. DHM Design, previously hired by the town in 2013 to begin this process, is responsible for project deliverables including conceptual site plans and land-use diagrams that will address three key elements: critical mass, connectivity and identity.

Those of us who work in economic development understand the need to provide small businesses with ongoing support, whether that be through 24/7 access to online information at erieco.gov/bizguide, partnering with the Small Business Development Center or hosting regular meetings to connect entrepreneurs with resources. But when you set out to bring new life to your old downtown, we know it doesn’t just stop there. It takes something more.

It’s an exciting time for business in Erie – especially downtown!

Paula Mehle is economic-development coordinator for the town of Erie.

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