Collaborating for progress

Leading the Northwest Delegation, opening new doors for the region

A single voice can deliver a powerful message, but collective voices can carry that message farther, which is why the Northwest Democratic Delegation – our coalition of House lawmakers representing Erie and Northwest Pennsylvania – can be such a powerful advocate for our region.

I was recently elected delegation chairman, and it is an honor to lead this hardworking group who stand united on so many issues that matter to our corner of the state.

During my years as the group’s treasurer, I worked with my colleagues to bring nearly $40 million back to Erie and our region, expand pandemic relief funding and funding for early childhood education, and prevent closure of the Polk center.

But as the pandemic has made clear, broad challenges remain.

Long before COVID-19 shuttered storefronts and uprooted our economy, Erie and surrounding regions were grappling with the effects of a shrinking tax base, a growing labor shortage, and an economy no longer powered by heavy industry.

To be sure, recent investments in commercial projects such as UPMC Park, major apartment renovations, expansions to the children’s museum, and many other projects are helping to stimulate the economy and transform the downtown landscape. At the same time, however, we need to change the landscape in more fundamental ways to encourage young families to put down roots here.

That will be a top priority for the delegation in the year ahead.

Accommodating shifts in manufacturing

Although manufacturing is no longer Erie’s largest industry, this sector continues to offer some of the best wages, so it is encouraging to know that companies like Wabtec and Plastek continue to play key roles.

An influx of new industries – cybersecurity, high-tech manufacturing, and other innovative startups – are also making homes here, as Erie has successfully reinvented itself as a welcome environment for tech to thrive. New projects are on the horizon – including plans for one of the nation’s largest plastics recycling plants and plans to convert the old EMI plant into a high-tech business park.

Our region’s many colleges and universities continue to fuel innovation with their role in cutting-edge collaboratives such as the NWPA Innovation Beehive Network. In the year ahead, we’ll work to bolster investment in these kinds of public-private partnerships.

But despite growth in these industries, challenges continue. Erie’s labor force has been shrinking steadily, and the problem has only worsened since the pandemic.

The skills gap remains an issue. To regrow our labor force, we need to expand public-private workforce development programs offering the kind of specialized training that attracts young job seekers, equips them for high-paying, high-tech careers, and makes them want to stay here.

Better wages, better benefits and other employer incentives will also need to be part of the equation.

Federal infrastructure funding – including $16 billion headed for Pennsylvania – will also create new job opportunities, and the delegation will fight to make sure our region receives its share of that funding to support the highways, bridges, ports, and other projects that create good-paying jobs.

The challenge of affordable housing

Jobs are just one important piece of the puzzle, however. Families looking to put down permanent roots also need affordable housing. Rising rents, blighted properties and a growing shortage of quality, affordable homes have narrowed those options – and the issue has only worsened since the pandemic. Grant funding has helped support housing construction and renovation – and we will continue fighting to bring more of those grants back to our region – but we can’t rely on that funding to solve our housing problems.

We need to build on existing incentives that encourage private investment in new and existing affordable housing. The state low-income housing tax credit we passed in 2020 can be a powerful tool for encouraging that investment. Another bill working its way through the legislature would allow authorities to pass tax abatements or exemptions to create or improve affordable housing, and we will be working to pass that legislation.

We also need to do more to fight blight and the abandoned, aging properties that invite crime and discourage investment. In the months ahead, we will be working to pass my bills and others that would make it easier for neighborhoods to combat blight and create a landscape that is more welcoming to developers.

Fair funding

Finally, while jobs and affordable housing are vital, the quality of a community’s public education is a major influence on whether families decide to stay and raise a family in that community. Given the choice, any parent will choose the school district that provides their kids the best start in life.

Erie and many other schools throughout the region have been underfunded for decades, keeping students from receiving the full resources they need to compete. In the year ahead, I will be fighting for full, fair funding of our public schools – and encouraging our delegation to do the same – so our students don’t have to start with an uneven playing field – and our taxpayers don’t have to keep footing more than their fair share of the bill.

As our delegation collaborates on these and other strategies to address the issues that matter to our region, we’ll also be working as a liaison between leadership and rank-and-file members to make sure those issues receive the attention they deserve. Most importantly, we will be speaking with one voice, loud and clear, to ensure that the unique needs of Erie and our region are heard in Harrisburg.