An unprecedented collaboration between Union City and two Erie-based grantmaking organizations has the borough poised to make significant investments in its downtown and public parks.
The Erie Community Foundation (ECF) is granting community-development nonprofit Union City Pride a $258,000 grant from the foundation’s Shaping Tomorrow program. That funding joins $250,000 granted from the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority (ECGRA) to Union City Borough in recent months, plus $30,000 from the Union City Community Foundation, and $1,500 from the borough itself.
Combined with up to $85,000 that downtown building owners have the opportunity to invest next year to receive matching funds for building improvements, the investment in the downtown and parks will total $624,500 if fully utilized.
“The Erie Community Foundation challenged the Union City Community Foundation to think bigger,” said ECF President Mike Batchelor. “We hoped it would move beyond traditional, day-to-day, grantmaking and assume a stronger community leadership role, and we are proud the community rose to this challenge.”
The Union City Community Foundation since early 2019 has been actively collaborating with Union City Pride and Union City Borough to identify projects that would “move the dial” in the community, said UCCF Board Chairman Steve Jones.
Those projects were packaged into a Shaping Tomorrow grant application to ECF, and included a live presentation to the ECF board of directors by representatives of the borough, Union City Pride, and the Union City Community Foundation.
“We all love our home town Union City,” said Jones. “The idea is to be a more vibrant and progressive community. The idea is to be a more welcoming community.”
The first tangible outcome of the initiative was the recent purchase by Union City Pride of the long-vacant former Union City Dinor building, and an adjacent brick building. While Union City Pride doesn’t have immediate plans for the properties, it was felt important to get the dinor in local hands so something constructive could ultimately be done with it.
Purchasing the adjacent building from its local owners gives Union City Pride greater flexibility in whatever next steps are ultimately identified to improve the gateway to the downtown.
“We made a very positive step with the revitalization of downtown Union City through the facade programs and the revitalization design guidelines being developed,” said Union City Pride board President Dave Nothum, about separate downtown historic preservation efforts that have been ongoing in recent months. “The dinor initiative will ensure this momentum continues.”
Determining what could happen with the dinor and adjacent building, as well as the small, borough-owned “Industrial Park” green space across West High Street from the dinor, and the overall look of the downtown entrance, is also part of the collaborative project.
Shaping Tomorrow funds will be used to engage an architectural firm over the next several months, to develop conceptual drawings of that downtown gateway as a blueprint for future development.
“These property purchases (the dinor and adjacent building) are the stepping stones towards something real, tangible and visual,” added Steve Jones. “It will be exciting to witness the changes as they develop, and see where this transformational community growth can take us all.”
The third local partner in the initiative is Union City Borough itself.
“We are seeing so many property improvements in Union City it only makes sense for improvements to this intersection,” said Borough Secretary Cindy Wells. “This is the crossroads of Union City.”
“It’s exciting to be part of the process that will have people traveling through downtown Union City thinking that the community looks great,” Nothum added.
At the other end of the downtown, tangible change will come in the form of a new public parking lot on the west side of Main Street, across from Union City Public Library. The library board and Union City Pride currently own those vacant lots, on which a new parking lot will be created to serve the library and nearby merchants. The project will be funded by both ECF and ECGRA monies.
“We’ve heard from business owners on this end of Main Street that it would be very helpful to have more than just the existing on-street parking,” said Wells, “so this should go a long way toward helping grow business in that portion of the downtown.”
The parking lot project is expected to be undertaken in 2020.
ECGRA and ECF funding will also be used to hire an architectural firm to conduct exterior and interior structural assessments of most of Union City’s historic downtown buildings. The completed assessments will be provided to the building owners at no cost, and any identified potential improvements will be eligible for up to $85,000 in matching funds being supplied to the borough through an ECGRA Mission Main Street grant awarded earlier this year.
Unlike matching funds made available to date only for façade improvements, these funds could be used for most interior and exterior improvements, from foundations, exterior walls and roofs to electrical and other interior needs. It’s anticipated the structural assessments will be completed by early spring 2020, with the matching funds then made available for projects selected by property owners from those assessments.
The assessments will also provide suggestions to property owners for how unused upper floors of their buildings could be put to productive use.
The Union City Community Foundation’s Steve Jones said the community’s downtown, like most other downtowns across the nation, has seen disinvestment in recent decades as downtown shopping was siphoned off by malls, stand-alone retailers, big box stores, and the Internet.
He said the foundation, Union City Pride and the borough believe the financial injection represented by the structural assessments, matching funds and other initiatives are necessary to ignite additional investment and improve the downtown’s viability moving forward.
“We believe that if we help create the necessary environment, and help restore an economic model that makes sense, private entrepreneurs will see the opportunity and take it from there,” said Jones of Union City’s downtown.
Perry Wood, executive director of the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, agrees.
“Erie County Main Streets are the heart of local economies and the gathering ground for neighbors to meet, shop, eat, relax and connect,” said Wood. “ECGRA is investing in Union City’s business district as part of an overall strategic effort to improve the business environment and enhance the community offerings that make towns like Union City desirable places to live, work and play.”
In addition to the downtown initiatives, ECGRA, ECF and borough funds will be used to make improvements to the borough’s Caflisch Park. Enhancing the borough’s parks is part of the community’s strategic effort to attract families.
A total of $101,500 is targeted to improvements that make Caflisch Park more compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as other changes. That work is also expected to take place next year, and dovetails with Union City’s recent award of a separate $50,000 state grant to create a master development plan for all four of the borough’s parks.
“Our $258,000 investment in Union City is being leveraged, and serves as crucial matching funds for other projects,” said the ECF’s Batchelor. “It is also spurring big thinking and transformational change. This is exactly the type of project we were hoping for.
“Community foundations must meet the day-to-day needs of local nonprofits,” said Batchelor. “With donor support, we can also help our communities think bigger. We hope this investment will inspire additional donations for the Union City Community Foundation. They have proven their ability to convene, rally and think big.
“It is clear this is a community-wide, collaborative, plan,” Batchelor concluded. “This is the way to move a community forward.”
ECGRA’s Wood added: “The strong collaboration between Union City Borough, Union City Pride, the Union City Community Foundation, Erie Community Foundation, and ECGRA is empowering a key revitalization effort in one of Erie County’s finest towns.
“As a result of this unprecedented collaboration, these investments will help make a lasting impact on the long-term viability of this historic town,” Wood concluded.
Union City Pride’s Dave Nothum agrees.
“By working closely together, we have been able to focus our efforts toward our combined goal for the revitalization of Union City,” he said.