Located on the shores of Lake Erie, the city of Erie is halfway between Buffalo and Cleveland and directly north of Pittsburgh. In other words, Erie sits at the center of the traditionally manufacturing-heavy economy Bruce Springsteen has sung about for decades. Like other cities in the region, Erie was impacted from the twin blows of a declining industrial sector and the dramatic changes that impacted America's steel industry beginning in the mid 1970s.
Unlike other cities, Erie has responded to a changing economy by making innovation a focus of its economic development strategy.
In late 2016, Mercyhurst University received a $4M philanthropic grant to develop the Erie Innovation District (EID), including hiring CEO Karl Sanchack a year later. The organization also partnered with the city, local funders and businesses such as Erie Insurance to build momentum for the innovation initiative, including the development of a Secure Smart City pilot that facilitates partnerships between the city, county, and startups to improve local government services. Startups participating in the Smart City initiative include CityGrows, a company that helps modernize local government by digitizing standard procedures and processes.
"It's been incredible to see the Erie community come together to support what we're doing, and to recognize the vision the public and private sector leadership have here," said CityGrows CEO Catherine Geanuracos. "CityGrows is proud to be the first company to have created a new technology hub based in Erie, and we look forward to growing our team here."
Having written about startup ecosystems across the country, I know the narrative of "Rust Belt city remakes itself as innovation hub" is not particularly new. Nor is it always completely accurate, as--just like private sector organizations do--cities and communities often brand themselves as innovation-focused, and then work toward building the infrastructure that makes the brand a reality.
In Erie, there is real momentum, real achievement, and real innovation behind the branding. The EID received applications from startups in 36 countries to participate in the Secure Erie Accelerator, which will have its Demo Day on September 26. Additionally, all nine of the Innovation District's startups have received seed-stage investments. Both are incredible achievements for any innovation district, let alone one located in a city with roughly 100,000 residents.
The Rust Belt isn't just a place that exists for the sake of Springsteen songs (for the record, I love Springsteen) and features in The Washington Post about how decayed middle America is. It's a real place, full of intelligent, innovative people who want to see their community succeed. Further, America's ability to maintain a cohesive national identity depends on economic opportunity being available no matter what part of the country one chooses to call home.
Because of that, it isn't just residents of Erie who should root for their Innovation District's success.
We should all root for the civic, business, and community leaders remaking what was once one of the country's most successful and important manufacturing-based cities into a home for innovative entrepreneurs looking to build America's next great startup.