Erie's Lead Team takes low-key approach to economic development
It was a cold day late this winter, and a dozen or so members of what's been dubbed the Lead Team were gathered around a conference table at Gannon University's Erie Technology Incubator.
The Lead Team isn't a formal economic development agency. The group has no budget, no letterhead, no office to call its own.
But it's a shining example, its members say, of a piece of Erie's economic development machinery that appears to be working.
The group, led by Jake Rouch, vice president of economic development for the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, came into existence in 2004. The idea was to bring together the leaders or key members of the economic development community for twice-monthly meetings.
There's an agenda for most meetings.
But the broader goal is always the same -- for everyone working in economic development to know what everyone else is working on, who needs what and what might be coming next.
During a meeting earlier this year, for instance, there was discussion about a company's leading information technology efforts, a handful of exchanges about following up with business leads and a discussion about finding space for a prospective tenant.
Among other things, Rouch said, the group ensures that business owners and entrepreneurs hear a consistent message and get quick referrals to the right organization.
"It's extremely important but in a very unsexy way," Rouch said. "It makes certain that the system doesn't duplicate itself."
Sean Fedorko, who sits on the board as the founder of Radius Cowork, a co-working space in Erie's Renaissance Centre, said the Lead Team enables an unusual level of awareness among groups that are working for a common cause but from different points of view.
"I came back to Erie just a little over a year ago," he said. "And I know on a personal level the head of every economic development organization."
Just last week, he said, those contacts enabled him to steer three tenants of Radius to make funding pitches to Ben Franklin Technology Partners.
"Without the Lead Team, I would have never been able to make those connections, and there would have been three people pitching instead of six. In Erie, every person you catch and don't let them fall through the cracks is substantial."
Against the backdrop of the recent bankruptcy filing by the Greater Erie Industrial Development Corp., the activities of the Lead Team might seem pedestrian.
The team, which consists of leaders from more than 20 organizations, elected officials and groups that boost entrepreneurs, is not devoted to hatching massive plans or making grand pronouncements.
In fact, most of what happens during the meetings is off the record.
"What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," Rouch said.
At the same time, however, he believes that what is happening in these meetings puts Erie on the cutting edge in terms of cooperation among organizations with the same broad mission.
Rouch knows of nothing like it elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
"Ideas we are thinking about launching, we bring them to the Lead Team," he said of his colleagues at the chamber. "Most times they make them better. It is an incredible sounding board to build things. It's a think tank; it's a support group."
The group also serves as a shortcut for helping area businesses and entrepreneurs find financing, said Rick Novotny, executive director of the Erie County Redevelopment Authority.
If his group can't help with funding, Novotny said, he can query the membership of the Lead Team, which includes a representative from Bridgeway Capital and other groups with access to grants or loans.
"You know, we all work in the same pool basically," he said. "By sharing information we are at least informed when we walk into a meeting with our clients."
Novotny sees the Lead Team approaching a period of change.
"For a long period of time, it was more of an information kind of sharing thing," he said.
Novotny didn't provide specifics but said upcoming months could find members of the Lead Team taking a stronger leadership role as members of a board that will "help solidify the economic development system."
The group hasn't hit a lot of home runs, at least so far, Fedorko said.
But in ways large and small, he said, he sees it giving Erie its best chance to succeed in a fiercely competitive environment.
"I always laugh at Erie people who say our economic development community isn't well coordinated," he said.
JIM MARTIN can be reached at 870-1668 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNmartin.