By Gerry Weiss
Erie Times-News, Pa.
WWR Article Summary (Tl:dr) The Erie Times-News takes a look at several incentives/programs being implemented in the city to keep new young entrepreneurs in the area. From co-working to incubators, the opportunities are growing for women in business.
Sean Fedorko is giving the region reason for optimism after years of Erie wringing its collective hands over the ongoing loss of its brightest young people.
Fedorko, 30, likes to refer to his circumstance, and the surge of several other new young entrepreneurs in the area, as brain retain.
“The city is finding a way to keep the talent it trained,” said Fedorko, co-founder of Radius CoWork, which opened in May inside Renaissance Centre and is believed to be Erie’s first co-working center, providing startup business owners with a professional office.
Fedorko, a Millcreek Township native, earned degrees in political science and philosophy at Mercyhurst University before leaving Erie for graduate school in Indiana and then a job in Washington, D.C.
He eventually returned here, just like his business partner, Bill Scholz, 29, an Erie native and Gannon University graduate who left town to study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
“We’re seeing young people staying in Erie and starting companies now that we wouldn’t have seen five, 10 years ago,” Fedorko said. “Part of it, I believe, is more of a willingness to take risks. Part of it is a change in culture. The notion of 30 years and a pension is a unicorn. None of us will ever capture it. We either have to build for ourselves or perish.”
Through entrepreneurship in technology, art and culture, there has been an influx of young Erie-area college graduates who are either staying here or returning to start up new businesses, said Fedorko, a steering member of ErieCoLab, a group of community organizers and business leaders aiming to spur growth in Erie. ECL formed this past summer.
You also can see this in the number of new breweries and bars under ownership of young professionals who are either from Erie, went to college in the region, or both.
Radius CoWork — whose members pay a monthly fee for desk space, office equipment, a conference room and a connection to high-speed Internet — is one of nearly a dozen new local companies started by 20-somethings, including the Picturesque Salon & Boutique, ApexDrop Influence Marketing, Erie Ale Works, and RendrFX, which creates templates that clients can use to generate customized videos.
“Opportunity here is vastly greater than it is in a lot of other cities,” said Fedorko, whose business received a crucial head start when it won a contest giving it free rent for one year. “Resources are available, and support organizations are eager to provide assistance.”
Penn State Behrend’s new Innovation Commons, the Innovation Collaborative, an Erie-based nonprofit organization dedicated to boosting entrepreneurism in the area, and the Erie Technology Incubator at Gannon University are playing key roles in helping entrepreneurs.
The technology incubator has been a hub for mentoring, nurturing and building startup and early-stage technology-oriented businesses in northwestern Pennsylvania since 2008.
The incubator, which often collaborates with Gannon’s Small Business Development Center, currently has about 25 clients, several of whom are students in their 20s, said Jeff Parnell, the incubator’s executive director.
“We commit to these companies, meet on a regular basis, track progress,” Parnell added. “There’s a great deal of support for people wanting to build out.”
RendrFX, which incorporated less than six months ago, is located in the technology incubator at 900 State St.
Parnell is especially impressed with Mathew Silva, 27, a software engineer and motion graphics designer who created the RendrFX platform. Silva moved here from Naples, Fla., in the summer, as he and his wife have relatives in Erie and Pittsburgh.
“Mat could have started this business anywhere in the country,” Parnell said. “We’re thrilled to have him in Erie, and we certainly hope he stays.”
The brain drain and brain gain of Erie’s young people has proved to be challenging to accurately track and quantify, according to officials with the Economic Research Institute of Erie and the Erie Community Foundation.
This wasn’t exactly the case five years ago, when the institute unveiled a study that compared where students were living when they applied to college and where they were living in 2011, tracking more than 17,000 graduates over a 10-year period.
The study showed 17.3 percent of Erie County residents who attended college locally ultimately moved somewhere else. Some of that loss was offset by students from outside the area who stayed after attending college here.
The analysis did not include data from thousands of Erie students who attended college outside the area.
Keeping our “best and brightest young minds” in Erie is what Jim Kurre, director emeritus of the institute, calls “the most important long-term part of the puzzle” when it comes to bolstering the local economy.
Young entrepreneurs, he said, will lead the way.
“It’s crucial. There’s a life cycle for industries, and it takes new firms and new ideas to replace ones that are dying or leaving the area,” the retired economics professor said.
The institute has not updated its study since 2011.
“It’s a big project to do. A major undertaking that is extremely time-consuming,” Kurre, who oversaw the 2011 study, said recently. “I’m not seeing many localized brain drain studies being done around the country, either.”
Kurre said a study would be possible to do in the future with the proper funding, which he estimates to be at about $20,000.
George Espy, the Erie Community Foundation’s vice president of community impact, echoed Kurre’s sentiment about the importance of tracking brain drain and brain gain.
But Espy said the issue is “too fluid” for the foundation to continue to follow as a separate indicator in its Erie Vital Signs project, the data-driven civic enterprise that has been tracking trends and community indicators in eight of the region’s critical areas since 2010, and comparing local numbers with those in cities similar to Erie.
Vital Signs dropped brain gain as a separate indicator in 2015.
“We haven’t found good consistent data over time where we could see trends with hard evidence. “We’d like to have it, but without the evidence we can’t draw any hard conclusions,” Espy said. “You’re talking about finding out who leaves, and whether they come back, and did they get jobs, and did they then stay in the area. It’s very difficult to track and get good accurate numbers.”
Young people, Kurre said, need to see promising employment and career opportunities in Erie to remain or return here.
Opportunity and immediate success have followed the young Erie entrepreneurs behind two popular downtown bars and breweries.
Bourbon Barrel, 1213 State St., has seen an increase in sales each month since it opened at the former Cell Block in July, according to its owners.
Paradox Bars, the ownership and management team behind Bourbon Barrel, consists of several Erie natives who are all in their 20s or early 30s.
Jason Lavery has been an integral part of the Erie region’s surging craft beer business since he was in his late 20s.
The Albion native, who graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in communications, has been producing beer commercially in midtown Erie since 2010.
He expanded Lavery Brewing Co. a little more than two years ago by opening a brewery pub, 128 W. 12th St., that can accommodate about 65 people. Business, from the day he opened his doors, has thrived.
Lavery, now 34, has seen the craft beer industry take off nationwide for much of the past decade, including in nearby Pittsburgh and Cleveland. And the award-winning beer he makes would likely be well-received by craft beer lovers anywhere.
Starting a craft beer business anyplace other than Erie never entered his mind.
“We’re very proud of being from Erie and promoting it,” Lavery said. “I think our faith in Erie has been good for other people and, I hope, other young entrepreneurs to see.”
Fedorko, of Radius CoWork, and Lavery both believe businesses like theirs will continue to attract young people to the city, providing the quality of life that makes them want to live in Erie.
And maybe keep them here.