Monday, May 27, 2024

Proposed business park sparks chaotic Fairview Township meeting.

Main Takeaways from the Meeting

If Erie County officials thought developing a business park in Fairview and Girard townships would be an easy sell, they’re likely having second thoughts.

On Monday, Erie County Executive Brenton Davis and County Redevelopment Authority CEO Tina Mengine spoke to Fairview Township leaders and a raucous crowd of roughly 200 people at the Fairview Middle School auditorium, hoping to convince them of the park’s benefits and potential impact as an economic driver.

They had little success.

Residents lashed out at the proposal, warning that a business park would squander farmland, disrupt the natural environment and significantly increase traffic in the area.

They called out the county’s lack of transparency, insisting officials like Davis had known about the project for several months and never informed the public.

“It’s pretty clear that there was a real big messaging error,” Fairview native and Millcreek Township resident Ryan Wilkosz told Davis and Mengine. “So now this entire room of people has to determine: Are you foolish? Are you liars? Or are you both?”

The proposed park would occupy a roughly 150-acre green space across from Pleasant Ridge Manor, just north of Pleasant Ridge Park and off U.S. Route 20. The park would mostly be situated in Fairview Township and extend roughly 20 acres into Girard Township.

The land had been publicly owned and leased for decades by Fairview resident and farmer Steve Wiser. Township residents said they were caught off guard when they found out Erie County government had terminated Wiser’s lease at the end of 2022.

They were also surprised when Erie County Council approved a resolution on July 11 that transferred the property to the Redevelopment Authority to begin pre-design work for the park.

Mengine has assured residents the park is not a foregone conclusion; that public meetings will continue; and that Fairview and Girard township supervisors will ultimately decide on the project.

“This could be a very positive thing for your community if you just allow us to work with you on it,” she told Monday’s crowd.

Townhall officials, residents say space is available elsewhere

Davis said the 150-acre green space was the “best of what we have countywide” in terms of a potential business park location, citing its shovel-ready land and utility infrastructure.

Township officials and residents offered other options.

Planning Commission member Robert Young said the other business park in Fairview Township, located at Klier Drive near I-90, also has shovel-ready lots with utilities, to include a roughly 30-acre lot.

“If we already have this infrastructure in place adjacent to I-90 — (which would) keep park traffic out of our community — why not invest there?” Young asked.

Bob Glowacki, past chairman of the Economic Development Corporation of Erie County, added “there is a significant number of available industrial and commercial sites in this community.”

“If you aren’t satisfied with (the other Fairview park), then go across the other side of I-90 and there’s about a 70-acre parcel that’s been on the market for years,” Glowacki said to resounding applause. “There’s so many spaces in this community that can be repurposed.”

Davis responded that none of those sites are large enough to meet the demands of the type of companies he wants in the county, namely projects of 50 acres or more that can attract high-paying “smart jobs,” which he described as predominantly science-based.

“Those are the ones that we’re missing,” he said. “Which is why we’re trying to swing outside of our weight.”

Rennie confronts Davis on lack of transparency

Former County Councilmember Mary Rennie, who recently resigned from council, said the transfer of land to the Redevelopment Authority was the “final straw” that led to her stepping down.

Rennie and County Councilmember Andre Horton were the only two councilmembers who voted against the transfer due to a lack of transparency surrounding the park project.

“Government only operates with the consent of the governed,” she said Monday. “The fact that it even got to this point is pretty awful.”

Rennie called out Davis and County Councilmember Ellen Schauerman, who represents both Fairview and Girard townships, and asked them why residents shouldn’t consider the lack of public hearings prior to the land transfer as a “complete betrayal.”

Davis said he did nothing underhanded, and that “duly elected members of County Council” voted on the transfer at a meeting that was publicly advertised in accordance with the law.

Davis first presented the park proposal to the full council and to Fairview Township supervisors during a June 29 work session. Girard Township supervisors were not invited.

On July 6, the council’s finance committee discussed the resolution supporting the land transfer. Finance meetings do not include a public comment period.

On July 11, the resolution passed on a 5-2 vote. The measure was a resolution and did not require a first and a second reading.

Davis touts park benefits. Residents balk

Davis said the park, in addition to making the county more competitive, has the potential to generate $425,000 of tax revenue.

He also said the county intends to use $4.5 million in American Rescue Plan funding to address long-term stormwater and infrastructure needs in both townships.

Moreover, the Redevelopment Authority will engage with the public on the character and quality of the park; on beautifying the area; and developing a walking trail and 162 additional parking spaces for Pleasant Ridge Park.

“We have to continue to invest in ourselves in order to improve our opportunities and chances for the next generations,” Davis said.

Residents didn’t appear convinced. Some of them argued that Rescue Plan money should go toward more pressing needs like alleviating poverty or assisting emergency services.

Many voiced skepticism in the number of businesses that have expressed interest in the proposed park and booed Davis for not providing a more direct answer on what would happen if both townships reject the project.

“Realistically, moving forward, the potential is still there to continue forward with or without — but that’s a conversation that needs to be had with the supervisors,” Davis said.

One resident described Davis’ responses as akin to a “long dissertation with no answer.”

A.J. Rao can be reached at arao@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNRao.

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