Steve Bishop is introduced as the new project coordinator.
January 28, 2019
The Union City Community Foundation aims to become more proactive and transformational in its approaches the community’s future, and seeks to partner with other community stakeholders to make that happen. That was the message as the foundation’s board of directors and a dozen representatives of other community entities, including the school district and borough government, gathered at the foundation’s invitation to discuss how they can move forward together.
Kyle Blakeslee, vice chairman of the foundation board, told the group that the community faces significant and ongoing challenges. He noted, however, that he was energized by the stakeholders who attended the meeting and the plans and actions already in the works. “We need transformational change in Union City,” he said. “It’s really on us as community leaders to drive that change.” Blakeslee also chairs the foundation’s grant committee, which reviews grant applications from community groups and organizations and makes recommendations to the foundation board. Blakeslee said funneling more money into transformational initiatives means there will be less available for other projects the foundation may have funded in the past. “We as a community foundation have to make some difficult decisions,” he told the attendees. “We can’t be all things to all people” and may have to decline some funding requests in order to support targeted initiatives that are deemed to make a bigger difference in the community.
The foundation board over the past year has undertaken strategic planning to identify a vision of the community’s future, and what areas of community development would support that vision. Believing the community’s future can’t be tied solely to a hoped-for return of manufacturing jobs, the board has adopted a strategy of being a “vibrant bedroom community.” A bedroom community is typically defined as an area in which people live, but commute to jobs in other nearby locales.
The foundation board has brainstormed the defining attributes of a bedroom community, and targeted some primary opportunities in the areas of Union City’s downtown business district, the community’s recreation and parks, the presence of French Creek, affordable housing, and a safe, governmentally stable environment. Blakeslee noted the groups represented at the meeting outlined a number of exciting initiatives and demonstrated considerable passion for the community, but asked: “How are we going to pull this together?” One way to help coordinate those various activities was announced as the foundation board’s decision to contract with former Union City resident Steve Bishop to act in the role of project coordinator. Bishop, who recently retired as executive director of the Corry Higher Education Council, introduced himself to the meeting participants and said one of his primary charges is to help “connect the dots” that community groups are working on. Representatives from several community entities spoke about projects that could connect with the foundation’s transformational vision, including the Union City Area School District, Union City Borough, Union City Pride and Union City Downtown Development, the Union City Community House Association, the Erie County Redevelopment Authority, and Preservation Erie, which has been working with the borough on a downtown historic preservation initiative.
Union City Mayor Natalie Wilmoth said it’s up to the community’s stakeholders, including borough government, to “find projects that can be a legacy” left to future generations of Union City residents. That includes being the kind of community that travelers notice, and say, “I want to stop there… I want to see what’s going on.” Shawn Gross, the foundation board’s chairman of community relations, said the board has been challenged by its partner, the Erie Community Foundation, “to think bigger and be more transformational.” He said that will require the foundation board and the community as a whole to think more critically about what they see. “What is the view that people driving through see of our community?” he asked, while adding that Union City has many assets that need to be leveraged. Gross and others at the meeting warned, however, that implementing such a vision will take time, and money. “This is going to be an evolutionary process,” he said, while adding that the foundation and community also need to select some projects with more immediate results so that they can “check some boxes, have some successes” in the next year.
Susannah Weis Frigon, a vice president with the Erie Community Foundation, said the ECF is indeed prompting its affiliated foundations such as Union City’s to push for more transformational change. “It does not happen, and cannot happen, without conversations exactly like this one,” she said at the end of the meeting. Frigon added that it’s a significant challenge for the Union City Community Foundation to move in a more transformational direction, and that “there’s a lot of compromise involved” in doing so. Part of that compromise will be the foundation’s board of directors deciding how much of its discretionary funding to pull from its traditional grant-making, to target in a more transformational direction.
The foundation board also agreed to schedule a meeting with the community’s nonprofits and other traditional grant-seekers in February to outline the foundation’s direction and answer questions about how that may affect the availability of funding moving forward.