December 13 2010

Published: December 12. 2010 12:01AM

Paralysis of status quo cripples efforts to halt region's decline

by Pat Howard

Whenever I make a case for regionalism in this space, I can count on at least one indignant response assuring me that folks in these parts like things just the way they are, thank you very much.

I certainly can't quarrel with that general proposition. That's why so little of consequence changes around here.

And on a wide range of issues over the years, including here and there in the community college debate, it's been apparent that some people just can't let go of the way things used to be. For them the challenges of the present and future trigger the default of pining for the past.

What subscribers to those overlapping mindsets don't do is connect the dots. They fail to grasp, or even consider, that reflexive adherence to the governmental and civic status quo, or to pipe dreams about magically re-creating Erie's faded industrial might, are key reasons why our region is in decline by a variety of measures.

A recent e-mail exchange I had with an Albion-area woman encapsulated the phenomena. I'd faulted Harrisburg in a column for keeping Pennsylvania's local communities splintered into numerous fiefdoms to the detriment of us all, and she wrote to argue that people in those various political subdivisions want to keep it that way.

I conceded the point as far as it goes -- change makes its own enemies -- but asserted in return that our state is set up for the society, economy and infrastructure of a bygone time. I fear she concluded that I'd made her point for her, because her response was a catalog of ways in which she viewed that time as better.

Certainly you can see things to mourn in the rear view mirror, though champions of the good old days tend to remember selectively. But our collective penchant for fixating on yesterday's community, yesterday's economy and yesterday's jobs drains time and energy desperately needed to propel us forward.

When the rationale for regionalism turns to erasing or working around municipal boundaries in the context of the city of Erie's importance and struggles, sometimes the pushback takes the form of disdain or condescension directed at city residents and what they're up against.

The gist of it is that the city's inexorable slide toward insolvency results from a collective character flaw. City people and their leaders made bad choices they'll just have to live with, the thinking goes. Anything else would be the equivalent of enabling and cleaning up after a chronic drunk.

Heaven knows the occupants of City Hall, and the people whose votes put them there, have too often encouraged that view. At times urging suburban folks to cast their lot with the city would have come off as inviting them to run away to join the circus.

But all of that's secondary when stacked up against the structural, demographic, financial and inertial forces arrayed against the city. The recurring clown show at most hastened a decline made inevitable by factors largely beyond City Hall's control.

That's why it gets me every time when wariness of the city and its problems crosses the line to smugness. The worst of what's happened to Erie and the state's other cities was hard-wired. State-level choices about local and regional government structure, land use, tax policy and the like have encouraged suburban flight, the concentration and
segregation of poverty, fiscal stagnation and other forces that fuel the hollowing out of our urban cores.

Writing off the city's slide as someone else's problem is also self-defeating because those forces don't stop at the city limits and act as a drag on the entire region's prospects. It's rather like finding the highest perch on a sinking ship and comparing your fortunes to the poor souls already going under. There's no future in it.

It's not just Erie facing these problems. And it's not just people in the Erie region drawing the wrong conclusions without weighing all the evidence and options.

Focus groups conducted statewide a few years ago by the Pennsylvania Economy League found that most people like the state's local government setup the way it is. But the research also showed that most folks didn't know much about how it all works and why, and really hadn't thought it through beyond liking how we do it because that's how we do it.

That's not a criticism, just human nature. But absent an epiphany in Harrisburg or a leadership revolution here, it does add up to daunting odds against transforming a political and civic culture that so far lacks the cohesion, capacity and daring for game-changing decisions.

Write to Managing Editor Pat Howard at 205 W. 12th St., Erie, PA 16534, or e-mail him at

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