Erie Hopes Third Time Is Charm for Creating a Community College
When the Erie County Council rejected efforts in 2010 to establish a community college in the northwestern Pennsylvania city — the second time it had done so within a span of four years — Andre Horton decided to take matters into his own hands.
Then the director of the local chapter of the NAACP and a longtime community activist, Horton ran for the council seat held by Joe Giles, a fellow Democrat and a 32-year incumbent who had voted against the community college proposal. Horton made setting up a community college in the city the centerpiece of his campaign.
In 2013, Horton defeated Giles in a stunning upset. He then eked out a narrow victory in the general election, besting both the Republican candidate and a Democrat who had mounted a write-in campaign. His final margin of victory was just 10 votes. He became the first African American to win elective office in Erie in its 200-year history.
Now, nearly four years later, Horton’s vision of a community college in downtown Erie is on the cusp of becoming reality. Horton and Ron DiNicola, a prominent local attorney, are spearheading an effort to set up a college they hope will drive economic development in a region that badly needs it.
“I am pleased to be at the forefront of this effort,” Horton said. “I believe we now have the political will to approve and submit a plan to the State Board of Education.”
Horton and DiNicola founded Empower Erie, a non-profit dedicated to the creation of a community college. Every Saturday morning, the all-volunteer group meets to plot strategy and build community support for the plan. With $300,000 donated by the Erie Community Foundation, the Susan Hirt Hagen Fund for Transformational Philanthropy and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, Empower Erie is behind a state-required feasibility study expected to be completed in June. The study will examine possible locations, staffing needs, accreditation, funding, potential enrollment and other factors.
Those same donors have also pledged to donate $3.7 million to the cause if the county council agrees to create the college and become its sponsor. Under state law, colleges need a local sponsor and funding source.
The effort is gaining momentum. The Erie School Board has endorsed the plan, and the Empower Erie’s plan recently picked up an important endorsement when several labor unions representing thousands of unionized workers publicly backed the plan.
“Having their support is very symbolic,” DiNicola said. “Organized labor represents the sentiments of workers in general. Organized labor has borne the brunt of the impact of foreign competition. They are on the front lines of the fight for competitive wages.”
Erie is still reeling from the last year’s decision by GE Transportation, which manufactures locomotives, to lay off 1,500 workers, fully one-third of its workforce. At one time the plant’s payroll exceeded 20,000 jobs. The jobs lost last year paid up to $34 an hour. GE Transportation moved much of its operations to a non-union plant in Fort Worth, Texas.
The layoffs have contributed to what some observers say is a palpable sense of desperation and urgency in Erie. Those feelings manifested themselves on Election Day last year. Donald Trump won Erie County, historically a Democratic stronghold, by two points. In 2012, Barack Obama won the county by 16 points.
The job losses, and the need to retrain hundreds of workers, appear to have galvanized support for the proposed college.
Both workers and high school graduates need the affordable educational option that community colleges provide, supporters say.
Scott Slawson, president of Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, said he’s been working to help bring new employers to Erie that can provide jobs for the laid off GE Transportation workers.
“Erie County is home to thousands of highly-skilled, generational workers, who are ready and eager to be utilizing their skills in support of their families and as a viable piece of the economic development efforts in the region aimed at attracting new employers,” said Slawson. “The community college is an exciting stroke of optimism as our workforce prepares for the jobs of a new economy yet to be imagined.”
Said Jack Lee, President of Erie Central Labor Council: “A community college would play an integral role in the training of the next generation of Erie workers and retraining of thousands of Erie workers displaced by massive layoffs over the past two years. We are encouraged by the support of the business community for this pivotal project, which we believe is required to address educational needs of Erie’s workforce.”
The college proposal appears to have widespread support. A telephone survey of Erie County residents conducted by Research America found that 72 percent of them support the establishment of a community college. In addition, 77 percent of those surveyed believe it’s “important” or “very important” for a community college to be involved in local economic development.
“This is just once piece of our work,” DiNicola said, “and it affirms that Erie County residents see the value of establishing a community college as a source of affordable high-education options that connect people to jobs.”
By most any measure, Erie could benefit from the economic boost that a community college could bring. The county is the largest locality in Pennsylvania without one. It’s afflicted with a host of economic ills. It lags behind the rest of the state and the nation on many metrics.
Even though Erie is home to five colleges or universities, just 16.4 percent of county residents older than 25 have bachelor’s degree. Only 8.7 percent of Erie residents hold a graduate or professional degree, compared to 10.9 percent for the state of Pennsylvania. Unemployment is about 6 percent, higher than state and national averages. In 2014, about 16.3 percent of Erie County residents were below the poverty level, above that for the U.S. (15.5 percent) and Pennsylvania (13.6 percent).
According to the Erie Community Foundation, the number of high school students aspiring to attend college is in decline. The percentage of Erie County high-school graduates who plan to pursue post-secondary education had remained at about 75 percent from 2004 to 2010. But since then it has been sliding, hitting just 70.7 percent for the class of 2013-14, the foundation reported. The trend bodes ill for the country. More jobs require postsecondary education, and those without a credential can be trapped in lower-paying occupations or no job at all.
“You also have a deficit of hope,” Horton said. “I think a college will yield real results, but also restart hope, which is something this region needs.”
Horton’s group has been busy trying to educate residents about the benefits a college could bring, building support from the ground up. That didn’t happen in 2010 when the college proposal was rejected amid concerns that it would cost too much and was not needed.
“A lot of people didn’t know much about it,” Horton said of the 2010 plan. “They didn’t know what a community college was. We don’t feel like it was marketed right. It wasn’t rolled out with any transparency.”
“This time, we have been doing our outreach to all of the stakeholders.”
DiNicola agreed. “We needed to do a better job talking to the citizens,” he said. “We were soldiers in someone else’s army. We decided early on that we needed some friends in the philanthropic community, and we needed a communications strategy.”
A breakthrough came when four members of the seven-member county council signed a letter endorsing the community college plan. Horton called that “a game changer.” He confident that those four council members will be there it comes time cast their votes.
DiNicola promises to push hard until the night the votes are cast.
“We have a whole class of people here for whom a college education is out of reach,” he said. “This will be a very consequential vote. “Erie has been one the plows in the fields of America. It deserves a positive future.”