Union City Marks First Year of “Shaping Tomorrow”

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By Stephen Bishop

Photo: “A new public parking lot will be constructed next year in this lot on Union City’s Main Street. A mural will also be installed next year on the south-facing wall of the recently renovated building shown here, that now houses Dai Salon. Both initiatives are part of Union City’s Shaping Tomorrow program in conjunction with the Erie Community Foundation.”

Progress continues to shape Union City in the year since the Erie Community Foundation demonstrated its confidence in the community with a $258,000 grant from its “Shaping Tomorrow” program to local nonprofit Union City Pride.

Much of the past year’s work is in the design phase, but sets the stage for visible improvement in the initiative’s second year. That work through 2021 will coincide with the 150th anniversary of Union City Borough’s incorporation in 1871.

“Although not obvious yet, the work over the past year is laying the groundwork for significant upcoming improvements to our downtown area,” said Kyle Blakeslee, vice chairman of the Union City Community Foundation. “What’s truly inspiring is the level of collaboration we now have between Union City Borough, Union City Pride and the Union City Community Foundation.”

Those three Union City entities more than a year ago pitched a package of community development initiatives to the Erie Community Foundation board and staff, which resulted in the Shaping Tomorrow grant. The projects included:

Union City Pride purchasing the former Union City Dinor and an adjacent Main Street building at what is now being termed the “gateway” to Union City’s downtown.

A redesign of three corners of that “gateway” intersection with architectural firm Bostwick Design Partnership of Erie. Public input on the design is currently being sought before it is finalized and funding sought for implementation.

Creation of a new public parking lot across Main Street from Union City Public Library, where only on-street parking currently exists, to facilitate development on the south end of the business district. The design of that new lot is near completion, with construction anticipated in 2021.

“Streetscape” elements on Main Street, the first of which will be a mural on the south-facing wall of the new Dai Salon adjacent to where the new parking lot will be constructed. Public input is currently being sought for the mural content, to be installed at the site in 2021.

Interior and exterior structural assessments of 19 downtown buildings, the last of which are expected to be delivered to those building owners in the near future. Once delivered, the borough will open a matching fund program using funds from the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (ECGRA) to help those property owners address projects identified on their respective assessments.

Shaping Tomorrow funds were also targeted for improvements to Caflisch Park, but the borough found another funding source for that project. That means those Shaping Tomorrow funds can be targeted to other needs, to be determined as the scheduled projects reach the implementation stage.

All told, the Erie Community Foundation’s $258,000 grant is being matched by $185,000 from such sources as ECGRA, downtown property owners, the Union City Community Foundation, and Erie Arts & Culture, taking the total investment to at least $443,000.

The progress has occurred despite difficulties imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We all know what 2020 has been like,” said Union City Pride board president Dave Nothum. “It’s been full of concerns, fears and uncertainty. But here in Union City we have many things happening that show a bright future for the community.

“The 150 -year birthday for Union City will be a great step forward for the next 150 years,” he added.

Borough Secretary Cindy Wells agreed.

“The Shaping Tomorrow grant has allowed the borough to advance many of our projects much sooner than we thought possible,” she said. “The projects are not only noticeable to the local residents but also to those just passing through Union City.

“We can’t thank the Erie Community Foundation enough for the confidence they have shown in Union City,” Wells added. “It is a pleasure working with them and the Union City Community Foundation.”

The Erie Community Foundation’s website touts its Shaping Tomorrow program as supporting projects “with the potential to change the trajectory of Erie County.”

“By leveraging the Foundation’s investments by several multiples, vital community issues can be addressed at scale,” the program description continues.

Union City Community Foundation chairman Steve Jones noted the Shaping Tomorrow application was the culmination of an earlier effort, when the foundation brought together leaders of Union City Borough, Union City Pride, the Union City Community House Association, Union City Downtown Development, the Union City Area School District, Preservation Erie and the Erie Community Foundation.

“The Union City Community Foundation challenged all the groups in the community to think big within the concept of positive transformational change,” Jones continued. “The idea was to get outsiders past our front door and see how special our Union City community really is. We all had the same goal of leaving a lasting impact for future generations.”

Jones noted that even beyond the Shaping Tomorrow initiative, it has taken many people and multiple collaborative organizations to reach the point where momentum is starting to build. In addition to those participating in Shaping Tomorrow, Jones referenced the Erie County Land Bank, Corry Redevelopment Authority, state agencies, area media outlets, and private donors.

“We have witnessed that we are stronger together and positive transformational change is already at our doorstep,” he said.

The foundation’s Kyle Blakeslee said the progress is poised to have a genuine impact on the community, particularly in the highly visible business district.

“I have spent my lifetime in Union City, and this is the first time I am confident and excited about positive change coming to our downtown,” he said.