This column was originally published in the Gettysburg Times, October 11, 2018

The large hand-painted sign on the door of a bait and tackle shop at the Erie Bayfront Marina says, “I believe in Erie.”

Every session, reception and sponsor thereafter echoed the same sentiment throughout the three-day 2018 Fall Conference held by the Pennsylvania Economic Development Association (PEDA). The membership association works collaboratively with the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development to provide continuing education opportunities and certification and with the legislature for advocacy. My colleague Kaycee Kemper and I both attended.

Of the myriad of things I learned, the most important is: When creating a goal, involve the community as a whole to have ownership. While that’s not exactly news, the idea of one shared vision approached by diverse means and partners is more likely to be realized than those which are not. This makes sense to me when I recall the many municipal meetings I’ve attended and learned about individual and regional planning efforts that will become part of a county-wide plan. Review and feedback from the citizenry is part of the shared vision and one that could perhaps be the most important.

Synchronicity is not always kind. On the first day of the conference, the financial website Wallet Hub ranked Erie’s economy as one of the slowest-growing in the nation; 513 out of 515 to be exact. Ouch. Not the kind of welcome that the Honorable Joe Schember thought he might be delivering as part of his introduction of the keynote speaker.

Joe Max Higgins, Jr. of Golden Triangle Development Link located in Columbus, Mississippi, was the perfect combination of philosophy, experience, grit and humor—bawdy southern humor. He and his community partners are responsible for sparking much of the industrial economic development in the Golden Triangle of northern Mississippi.

Joe Max, as he prefers to be called, said that this area of Mississippi had a self-confidence problem. It’s not surprising to me that he referenced another southerner for motivational guidance. Zig Ziglar said, “You are what you’re told you are.” They had essentially adopted the idea that they are what folks think they are: uneducated, unemployed and poor. The trifecta result is, “We don’t deserve nice things.” The three-city area simply stopped trying to attract the people who could bring investment, development and jobs to the area.

The first thing Joe Max did was challenge them to create a new belief system by having them identify all of the good and unique things about them and their community. He encouraged them to focus on what’s best and build upon it.

Contrast that with the City of Erie. Every session of the conference was yet another example of a successful approach of how this community rose above every obstacle they encountered.

What is now a vibrant bayfront with mixed use was previously a 29-acre brownfield left behind by a shingle manufacturer. This part of Erie’s lost industry is now a thriving attraction to residents and visitors alike.

Oh, and while you’re there, make sure you spend a moment watching the sun set over Presque Isle. National Geographic ranked Erie as one of the top ten places to watch the sun set in the nation. That’s unique! But it is apparent that the sun has certainly not set on Erie’s perseverance and determination to achieve their shared community goal of economic prosperity for a bright future.