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Erie planning director: ‘You have to prioritize’

Kevin Flowers
Erie Times-News
Kathy Wyrosdick, left, and Jake Binney discuss a blighted property in the 900 block of West 11th Street on Sept. 15. Wyrosdick is the director of planning and neighborhood resources for the City of Erie. Binney is one of five code enforcement officers for the city.

Kathy Wyrosdick has a new mandate.

The city of Erie’s planning director has long been Mayor Joe Schember’s point person for overseeing the implementation of Erie Refocused, the city’s comprehensive, multiyear development plan.

Now, Wyrosdick, 51, is tasked with overseeing the city’s new Department of Planning and Neighborhood Resources, which brings zoning, code enforcement, the city’s arborist and sustainability programs under the city/neighborhood planning umbrella.

Schember believes this reshuffling of city operations will help improve neighborhoods and allow city officials to be more efficient as they work toward Erie’s revitalization.

While announcing the move at a July 30 news conference, Schember said the new department will also help “shift the city’s approach from being reactive to being proactive” when it comes to community development.

Schember said he is confident Wyrosdick is up to the task.

“She’s a very experienced planner and a hard worker. I’ve seen that myself,” Schember said. “This new approach will help us understand what we need to do and what our highest priorities should be.”

Wyrosdick is a former planning director in Fairmont, West Virginia, and for Erie County government. She has also worked in Michigan and Ohio.

The Erie Times-News recently sat down with Wyrosdick to talk about the new department, how she plans to approach her new duties, neighborhood improvement priorities and more.

Here is what Wyrosdick had to say.

Q: When Mayor Schember announced the new Department of Planning and Neighborhood Resources, he said zoning, code enforcement, the city’s arborist/sustainability programs and planning were being combined to “shift the city’s approach from being reactive to being proactive” in terms of community development. As the person in charge of this department, what components do you believe are absolutely necessary to make this happen?

A: There needs to be a willingness to do things differently than they’ve been done in the past. We identify challenges and problems that need to be addressed either through the organization or through processes or as a community-wide effort and usually that means things have to change.

I’ve already seen a willingness from people to want to do that.

An example of that is what we did with the Academy/Marvintown plan. That plan really lays out a five-year system to help stabilize and strengthen that neighborhood. A lot of that had to do with dealing with blighted and disinvested properties in a systematic way. We did property conditions surveys to find out where the most problem properties were; some were in the code-enforcement system already and some were not. Now we have a list of all the properties that are challenging, and they can be proactive about them whether there were complaints about them or not. And now we have input from neighborhood groups which tell us which properties need to be priorities. That’s a system we didn’t have before that we created to help us prioritize. The city does not have endless resources, so you have to prioritize.

And we have a neighborhood planner now (Erin Carey) who is a conduit between code enforcement and the neighborhood groups. That helps us identify problems as well.

Q: Code enforcement, in particular, has been a target of citizen criticism in recent years for either not being very responsive in some neighborhoods or being too aggressive with citizens in others. What’s the right balance, and how do you get there in a way that gives all neighborhoods what they need?

A: I think part of the problem is that code enforcement has been seen as a silver bullet. Code enforcement does not clean up or maintain property. Property owners are supposed to do that. Code enforcement is the enforcement arm of property maintenance. So I want to put the expectations of code enforcement, and zoning, for that matter, in their proper place. My idea is to give code enforcement all of the tools that they need to be as effective as they can be enforcing the laws that are on the books.

Some of those tools involve better technology, because right now they have to work on three or four different software systems to do their jobs, especially out in the field. They spend so much time on documentation, I can see where there’s a lack of efficiency, and I want to fix that part.

There’s also things like vacant property registration that we’re looking at as a new program. It would require registration and inspection of vacant properties to make sure it’s safe and not degrading any further. There are fees associated with that and the fees go up every year. That would incentivize people to do something with the properties because then they don’t have to pay those fees in many cases.

We want to work with the property owners who actually want to do something with their properties. And for those who do, there are a lot of programs out there already that can help them.

There is no silver bullet. That’s what makes this complex.

Q: Why do you think that you are a good fit for this position?

A: I think it’s definitely my background and skill set. I have been working in this field for decades and I’ve worked both as a community planner, looking at the vision and goals of a community and working to implement them, but I’ve also worked as a public sector planner charged with actually getting the work done. None of this is new to me. I think this fits me, and hopefully this job will surpass my tenure with the city.

Q: You have said this reorganization will help “efficiently implement many of the priorities coming out of the planning programs being developed by the city now.” What are those priorities, and how do you keep them on track?

A: Erie Refocused and Activating Our Vision are clearly our priorities. Go back to our five-year action plan for Erie Refocused and every step in that plan has been accomplished. We’ve never varied from that. And we have the same approach as we drill down into those neighborhood plans — specific numbers of homes that need to be rehabilitated, the feet of sidewalks that need to be replaced, keeping track of the number of blighted properties that need removed. Activating Our Vision actually gives us more performance measures for dealing with outstanding code enforcement violations.

Those are workbooks for us. I’m not one to let a plan go or go through a process without trying to implement.

Q: Has there been much pushback within City Hall regarding this new structure?

A: None whatsoever. You never know how change is going to land, but I was pleasantly surprised when the mayor and I announced this to the staff. We got some good, solid feedback during that meeting, but afterwards, for example, a few of the code-enforcement officers and some of the other staff stayed and had all of these great ideas. “Why don’t we do this? and ”Why don’t we do that?“ People are on board.

Q: Mayor Schember told me that “stress is essential if we really want to move forward” with the city’s planning priorities, in explaining why he moved forward with this new department. Do you agree with that, and what kind of stress in this context is beneficial?

A: What’s usually so stressful in any planning process is the transparency. You are held accountable for performance of your plans. It’s out there. And that’s OK. They are adopted (officially) and that’s purposeful. And to me, it makes things easier. I want people to know what we’re doing. ... I don’t want to have to change course every other day. If you create a development plan that’s strong enough, with sufficient support and enough stakeholders taking part, you shouldn’t have to change the direction of it dramatically, especially at the neighborhood level because the neighborhood has been involved in developing the plan.

Q: If you had to explain to a city resident in simple terms why this type of planning matters and why these different departments needed to come together, what would you tell that person?

A: I would hope people would want to see their city planned like their own lives. You plan for retirement or for your kids to go to college. You plan when you change jobs or open up a business. Don’t you want your city to do that same level of collaboration and forward thinking to figure out what the goals are and how you’re going to meet them?

Contact Kevin Flowers at kflowers@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ETNflowers.

Kathy Wyrosdick oversees the city's blighted properties program.