News & Events

Erie's top competitor? Answer may surprise you

Posted on Friday, June 21, 2013 at 12:35 PM

Kristan J. Wheaton

I teach intelligence analysis at Mercyhurst University. My job is to teach my students how to understand the environment in which their business or agency or department exists -- to understand the things that are critical to the success or failure of an organization but are fundamentally outside that organization's control.

Things like the competition

Intelligence in the business world is about many things, but one of those things is the competition. The ancient Chinese general, Sun Tzu, said, "Know the enemy and know yourself and you will be victorious in all your battles." In the context of the business world, the enemy is your competition.

Recently, I completed a study on our competition. By "our competition," I mean the Erie region's competition. In a globalized economy, our community competes with other communities all over the world for business, for educational opportunities, and in terms of quality of life.

I could rattle off streams of statistics but I am not sure that would do any good. Most people have some sense of what that story tells. Instead, what I intend to do here is to tell you about who is arguably at the top of the list -- to compare Erie to its No. 1 competitor. It is not a pretty story (but you probably already know that).

Reinvention is key

Our No. 1 competitor is, surprisingly, in the northern part of the U.S. The first indication that it is an exception to the well-known woes of the Rust Belt lies with its population statistics. While cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland have lost 30 percent or more of their population over the last 30 years, this community has not suffered a similar fate.

 

Its unemployment rate is regularly below both state and national averages. This is probably because it has already reinvented itself for the 21st century. Twelve of its top 25 employers are in "meds and eds" -- medicine and education -- and many of the rest are in some sort of high-tech industry. More than 20,000 students attend its universities (which regularly produce nationally ranked academic programs and championship-caliber sports teams), causing some of its citizens to brag, "Our chief export is education." Of course, it also has one of U.S. News And World Report's top 300 high schools (out of 18,500 high schools in the country -- no mean feat).

Tourism revenues in our top competitor actually grew 25 percent over the last three years despite the "great recession." Its tourism success should come as no particular surprise since more than 20 million people live within a short three-hour drive of its combination of man-made attractions and natural wonders.

Despite all of this, it still has the lowest cost of living of any community its size in its state -- and in the two states next to its state. It has some of the shortest commute times in the country. You would probably not be amazed to hear that it is on CNN/Money's top 100 places to live in the country (out of about 35,000 places you could live. Again, no mean feat).

Business is lean, mean

Numbers are fine as far as they go, but one of the things that really impresses me about this community are its businesses. I have seen a number of them and they are lean and mean and ready to compete. And compete they do -- successfully -- with China and India and Japan and Europe.

They are flat organizationally and agile institutionally, with the chief executive often sitting next to the chief engineer who sits next to the shop foreman. Supporting these leaders is a labor pool that is experienced and competent. (One plant manager I met told me flat out, "The worst machinist I have here would be my best machinist at any other plant I have worked in the country.") Many of them have been through something of a meat grinder over the last 20 to 30 years, but you can tell that they have learned from that experience. They have a "Bring it on!" attitude that is both encouraging and infectious.

Pretty depressing when you think about it (I warned you it would not be pretty). So, where is this paradise, this nirvana, this little slice of heaven?

It's Erie.

It's Erie, folks. Every fact I listed above is true about Erie or the Erie area.

It's time to brag

Of course, we don't talk about it like that. No, for us it is "dreary Erie" or "the mistake on the lake." We don't talk, much less brag, about how we've changed and adapted to a difficult and complex world -- a world in which we are now well positioned for success. Snowbelt, Rust Belt, brain drain; we repeat these phrases and others like them endlessly like some sort of negative-thinking mantra designed to ensure that our future is one of slow decline rather than one of potential fulfilled.

I am not suggesting that we don't have any problems or that those problems will be easy to solve. I intentionally spun the story above to focus on the positives. Every community has problems, though. Not every community's major problem is its attitude about itself. In the words of Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

How can we solve this problem? How can we change the attitude of an entire community about itself? What won't work is some big government public relations campaign to make us all think differently about the Erie region. We are all too smart for that nonsense.

What might work are ideas. Ideas lead to thoughts like "We could do that," which lead to thoughts like "Why aren't we doing that?" which leads to "We're going to do that!" In my experience, there is nothing like new ideas to create a positive attitude.

But I don't think we need just one big, new idea. One big, new idea has about as much chance in Erie of being successful as that government PR campaign I talked about earlier. No, I think we need lots of small ideas. Many of these small ideas won't be very practical or may not work at all. Others, like seedlings in a cold frame, will begin to take off and as they grow and develop, will influence the thinking of all who come into contact with them.

Where ideas sprout

Where can we find all these new ideas? Two places -- our universities and our entrepreneurs.

Our universities are hotbeds of good ideas and they are easy and inexpensive to access: Hire a student as an intern. For example, the intelligence studies program at Mercyhurst is a world-class program, recognized both nationally and internationally. We will place nearly 100 student interns this summer -- most of them outside Erie. Many of our students come from the Erie area, though, and would welcome a chance to stay here for the summer. There is no easier, less expensive way to find out what a world-class intelligence analyst could bring to your business.

Of course, it doesn't have to be intelligence. Let's say you want to explore the marketing possibilities of social media or are interested in some new software to automate one of your processes or want to redesign your web page or logo. An intern from one of the excellent business, engineering or graphic arts programs in the area would certainly bring new ideas and a fresh perspective as well as a wealth of new contacts with professors and other experts inside the university.

Entrepreneurs are another source of new ideas. As an entrepreneur myself, I can tell you that the Erie area is not particularly hospitable to entrepreneurs. Government support is fragmented and inconsistent and private support is largely unavailable for true startups. Here a public-private partnership between local governments and community-oriented angel investors could make a real difference in creating an ecosystem friendlier to entrepreneurs.

I recognize that this may sound Pollyannaish to some of you. If so, you are welcome to come up with your own solution. Acknowledge this, though: For far too long we have been competing with ourselves -- competing with ourselves and losing. This needs to stop.

We need to stop focusing on our weaknesses and start playing to our considerable and demonstrated strengths, stop waiting for someone to get an "initiative" started or a "planning committee" formed and start leveraging our informal but real relationships and put our ideas in motion.

We need to stop waiting for tomorrow or next month or next year and start assuming that the best place to build it is here and the best time to start is now.

KRISTAN J. WHEATON is an associate professor of intelligence studies at Mercyhurst University. He is a retired foreign area officer with the U.S. Army who specializes in national security matters, analytic methods, intelligence communications and game-based learning. (kwheaton@mercyhurst.edu).

Wheaton, K. (2013, June 9). Erie’s top competitor? Answer will surprise you. GoErie.com. Erie PA. Retrieved from http://www.goerie.com/article/2013306099966

   
 
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