Christina Marsh is the Chief Community and Economic Development Officer at Erie Insurance.
Immersed in her organization’s community development work, much of it in their home base of Erie, in Pennsylvania, Chris works directly with CEO Timothy NeCastro to lead and plan targeted revitalization efforts. She helped create the Erie Downtown Development Corp (EDDC), also supported the creation of a related equity fund that has raised more than $27 million dollars towards downtown development. And now EDDC is tackling the redevelopment of four blocks in Downtown Erie, in large part because of her efforts.
“I love building new,” she says, “In my career, it’s all about building new. It’s about helping others build their own competence, their own capabilities, helping other women succeed in business and growing their own leadership. There is always that teacher in me.”
Having been at Erie Insurance since 1994, Chris has served as senior vice president of their Enterprise Portfolio Management Office, senior vice president of Human Resources, and led Erie Insurance’s implementation of Sarbanes-Oxley as vice president of Financial Reporting. Before that she worked at Ernst & Young, where she earned her CPA. Chris holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Mercyhurst University, where she now serves as a Board Trustee. She is on the executive committee of the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership Board of Directors, and was appointed to the PA Early Learning Investment Commission as a regional Commissioner, advocating for quality early learning in the community.
Insights and Inspirations
- Erie Insurance believes in service, and so does Chris. They have a corps of volunteers ready to spring into action. And they have seeded a community emergency fund.
- Chris and her team spent one and a half years studying Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) as a model for the Erie Downtown Development Corporation.
- Erie is down on itself, so the work of building it back requires more than just dollars.
- Bruce Katz thinks Erie’s downtown is a proxy for the nation during the Covid19 crisis.
Information and Links
- Take at peek at Erie’s comprehensive plan, Erie Refocused.
- Learn more about the EDDC here, which Chris is very proud to have helped create.
- Chris admires the work of the Milton Hershey School because she believes in the power of education.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:13] Hi there, thanks so much for joining me today for the latest episode of Impact Real Estate Investing.
Eve: [00:00:20] My guest today is Christina Marsh, chief community and economic development officer at Erie Insurance. Erie insurance has played an unusually large role in their community. In her role, Christina has helped to create a community development corporation, an equity fund that is now at 27 million dollars and has also been involved in the purchase and development planning for four blocks of Erie’s lovely downtown. Christina, first and foremost, sees her role at Erie Insurance as one of service to the community they are located in.
Eve: [00:01:02] Be sure to go to rethinkrealestateforgood.co to find out more about Christina on the show notes page for this episode and be sure to sign up for my newsletter so you can access information about impact real estate investing and get the latest news about the exciting projects on my crowdfunding platform, Small change.
Eve: [00:01:26] Hello, Christina. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Christina Marsh: [00:01:29] Hi Eve, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Eve: [00:01:32] I’ve heard and wondered about Erie Insurance and the company’s role in economic development in a boom that’s really underway in Erie and I wondered who’s behind it? Is that you?
Christina: [00:01:46] There’s many of us actually behind it. And what I can say about Erie Insurance, I’ve actually worked with Erie Insurance for over 25 years now, and just a couple of weeks ago we celebrated our 95th year anniversary as an organization. Our founder, H.O. Hirt, always instilled in our core values and belief system in being, above all, in service and not just service to our agents and our customers and employee to employee, but certainly to the communities that were a part of. Erie is our namesake and our hometown and has been for 95 years so we have a very strong historian, civic leader, community advocate in our chairman of the board, Mr Tom Hagen, who’s certainly behind a lot of the visionary efforts that are happening here in Erie and certainly on behalf of Erie Insurance. And our CEO, Tim NeCastro, this is his hometown. He became our CEO a few years back as all of this new energy, this renaissance, was beginning. So really, the timing was right for Erie Insurance to come in and take a bit of a leadership role. We are now the largest employer in Erie County and the only Fortune 500 company that’s headquartered here so we take that responsibility very seriously.
Eve: [00:03:10] And so what’s, what’s your role at Erie Insurance?
Christina: [00:03:14] So, I am the community and economic development officer and when Tim came into the role as CEO, he and I had worked together over the years in all different capacities, even at Ernst & Young before we both joined the Erie Insurance many years ago. And he invited me in to help with all that was happening in the community. We do a lot of convening and coordinating, not just of our time, but of our resources with others so this way, as community leaders, are collaborating like never before, on public and private sector sides, that we’re also able to multiply the impact of all the investments that we’re making as well.
Eve: [00:03:54] Wow. So, just tell me a little bit about Erie. Actually, I’ve been there. I know a little bit about it, but not a lot. Anyone is listening may not have been there.
Christina: [00:04:02] Sure. You know, Erie, Pennsylvania, is the fourth largest city up in this north-western corner of Pennsylvania. We are the only port here in Pennsylvania with a beautiful lake and bay-front, which is one of our greatest assets that we’re leveraging. We’ve had quite a bit of investment, private investment, over the past several years, Erie Insurance being one. We are located right in the core, downtown. We have over 40 acres there. There’s a beautiful public square right in the core that we consider the beating heart of the region. It’s called Perry Square. It’s been beautified, lots of investment has been made there as well. So, it’s really centered on a strong core. We have two health systems that are strong, Allegheny Health and UPMC. UPMC is anchored right downtown as well with Erie Insurance, as well as Gannon University on the west side of the square. So, we have three strong anchors in our downtown. So, we have four universities and one of the largest medical schools, LECOM, here in Erie as well.
Christina: [00:05:08] So we have many rich assets, a mayor who took office in early 2018 that has a strong vision for Erie being a community of choice. So, he’s leading that effort with a strong balance of embracing the diverse cultures that are here. We have, in the city, we have about 20 percent that are new Americans, those that have resettled here. So, we’re embracing those communities that are, you know, starting their own rich cultural aspects, as well as ensuring that we create and continue to build upon a strong and healthy and vibrant downtown and bay-front. We do have a lot of rich assets and things to do here in the community that’s very generous and a lot of grit to it. We’ve certainly seen some of the decline, though, as many Rust Belt communities have over the years. We’ve lost, you know, 40,000 people in the city of Erie over the past six decades for various reasons and so some of the infrastructure over the past few decades has certainly declined. And we are working now to really reinvest in that infrastructure, whether it be our public schools or our streets or buildings that have really cool and unique architecture.
Eve: [00:06:30] So it’s a pretty typical Rust Belt story. Loss of jobs, loss of people, loss of tax base and declining infrastructure as a result.
Christina: [00:06:40] Absolutely.
Eve: [00:06:41] You didn’t mention one of my very favorite assets in Erie, and that is Presque Isle, which has to be one of the most beautiful state parks I’ve ever been to, one of my favorite places.
Christina: [00:06:51] You’re right, it is. I think sometimes, you know, I’m not from Erie originally, I grew up in Long Island and when I had family and friends come and visit, then we go to Presque Isle or look out over the lake there. They don’t imagine it to be as beautiful as it is. Of course, you know, it’s a free public park, which is also amazing.
Eve: [00:07:11] Yeah, it is amazing.
Christina: [00:07:12] And the traffic isn’t nearly what it is on the Long Island beaches so it’s a great surprise and certainly, yes, a beautiful asset.
Eve: [00:07:21] It is. I’ve enjoyed it for many, many years. I think the state parks in Pennsylvania are altogether gorgeous, but that has to be the most beautiful. What’s a typical project that you might become involved in, in Erie?
Christina: [00:07:34] The first one that we took a leadership role on was the creation of the Erie Downtown Development Corp. We had eight community leaders in late 2017. They really took the Erie Refocused plan to heart. We had a comprehensive plan at that time that the community had built together with a consultant, Charles Buki. There was something called a Metro 100 at our Jefferson Educational Society, it’s a think tank here in Erie. And our CEO was there, Tim NeCastro. Afterwards, he spoke to Buki and said, you know, here’s six hundred million dollars of, you know, work ahead of Erie and this comprehensive plan for the city, where do you even begin? And Buki recommended, of course, starting in an area of strength, which is our core downtown, and build out from there and stay focused. He also suggested that that group take a look at 3CDC in Cincinnati. And so, there was a small contingent called the Cincinnati 8 of our business and community leaders, our Erie Community Foundation leader’s been a strong partner in this, and off they went to Cincinnati to talk with Steve Leeper, who I believe you would know from Pittsburgh days.
Eve: [00:08:53] Yeah, I do and there is the Tom Murphy connection, right?
Christina: [00:08:58] Exactly. Steve Leeper’s been very generous with his time and resources so that we could accelerate creating a similar model here in Erie. Definitely a different scale and a different starting place from where Steve was at that time. That’s where, for the first year and a half, Eve, that’s where myself and my team spent most of our time in helping to bring leaders around the table, create the model for the Erie Downtown Development Corp., a non-profit, and then really began raising funds to help fill gaps, particularly in these early days as we patiently await the building and the return of the market. You know, we raised over 27 million dollars. We knew that we needed collaboration, Erie Insurance could not do this alone. We needed the support and buy-in from the community. We really needed to create new hope for Erie. Our mindsets, we’re still very down on ourselves. We had a lot of national press that was really taking advantage of the Rust Belt story in the negative sense and we really wanted to turn that around to create hope and optimism for our community and change the mindset around to: it’s not only okay to love Erie, we do love Erie and we’re ready to do something about it, and do something about it for everyone for generations to come. And that’s really a lot of what we did in those early years.
Eve: [00:10:20] So the Downtown Development Corp., if I’m correct, actually has purchased a block, maybe a block of property, to do a rather large development in the core of downtown, is that correct?
Christina: [00:10:32] That’s right, Eve. Actually, there is a block, it’s right on North Park Row. So, Perry Square that I referred to earlier, that is right on Perry Square. But they’ve also purchased properties in, actually, a four-block square in that downtown corridor right on our main thoroughfare of State Street, which is really key. So, yes, and that first project that you’re referring to is on North Park Row. It’s a beautiful, older, historic building, comes with some challenges because it does need a lot of work. At the same time, we are in one of the poorest zip codes in the state and in the country. It is in a designated census tract for Opportunity Zone. And so, we know that it’s also in a designated food desert. It’s intended to be first floor food hall, urban market to create food supply and resources for those that live and work right in the downtown area and become a destination, we hope, for those that want to come downtown and visit it and be a part of the revitalization effort.
Eve: [00:11:39] You have the buildings. You have the funding. What’s the timeline? What’s the plan for starting construction?
Christina: [00:11:46] Yep. So, construction has begun. The EDDC actually began really pulling out a lot of what was in those older buildings and starting to repair and ready them for the food hall on the first floor. Not much has been done on the upper floors yet, the apartments and so forth. But they invited an application process of having vendors apply to be a part of one of the vendors in the food hall.
Eve: [00:12:14] Oh wow.
Christina: [00:12:15] And they received over 20 applications and they’re interviewing now to narrow down to nine. They really wanted to be diverse. We’ve done many surveys and community meetings and trying to study what the residents that live there today and employees that work, you know, that come downtown and work every day, are most interested in and are really trying to meet the diverse needs of our community. So, yeah, by first or second quarter of next year, we should have an opening of our first food hall right downtown. So, we’re very excited about that.
Eve: [00:12:52] That is very exciting to see a dream, sort of, become reality, right?
Christina: [00:12:56] Absolutely.
Eve: [00:12:57] I think, what I’ve seen of the Erie plan, it’s a big plan and what are the hoped-for outcomes?
Christina: [00:13:04] One of the beautiful things about this role, community and economic development for Erie Insurance, is that we participate in many different aspects of creating a vibrant community. And, you know, some of the overall goals are ensuring that we have jobs and access to jobs ready in the next three to five years through the work that our Chamber of Commerce is doing under new leadership. That we are creating a ready pipeline for workforce so this way, those in the communities that might not be ready or have access to education or a hands-on training, can have that access and are ready when the jobs are ready. So, we’re matching the needs of the employers with those that are in our community today. You know, success for us looks like just an overall improvement in the quality of life. And that’s measured in so many different ways, not just the vibrancy of the downtown, the buildings are the tools to support that. What’s the human experience? What are our community members really experiencing? While we’re growing for the new and bringing in new businesses and the targeted industries to really leverage the assets that we were just talking about that are right here in Erie today.
Eve: [00:14:21] Well, this is not a small task that you’ve taken on. And I’m, I’m wondering what background led you here?
Christina: [00:14:30] Well, it’s been very interesting because it’s not one, you know, that my, you know, 20-year-old self would have imagined in any capacity, I’m certain. But, you know, all of the experiences that I’ve had in the past, whether it was through my finance role at Erie Insurance, Ernst Young or otherwise, through my people role, you know, leading H.R. for a Fortune 500 company, certainly teaches you a lot about appreciating that people aspect of what we do every day and, you know, our culture is built around being, above all, in service, and we only do that through the human touch. So that’s an important element of who we are as an organization. So, you take all of those experiences and learnings and, and I love learning and building new, that’s what I’ve done in my career. So, to give back to a community that I’ve been a part of and have raised three children in, my husband and I, I mean, it’s been such an exciting time for Erie and certainly personally in my career.
Eve: [00:15:32] I’m smiling over here because it sounds great. So, you know, what I’m most interested in is impact and socially responsible real estate. And I’m wondering what socially responsible means to you, and especially in this context.
Christina: [00:15:50] We actually, we talk quite a bit about that, Eve, because we’ve used the phrase that you hear a lot “the rising tide lifts all boats”. And we say that, and I think in the beginning it sounded like, you know, if we could redevelop the downtown core and have that ripple effect through other neighborhoods and certainly out throughout the region, that that would be great for all parts of our community. And that’s true. At the same time, when our mayor came on, Mayor Schember, he shone a light on where there were disparities and where there were deep-rooted strongholds within different minority communities. And he actually launched an initiative called the People’s Supper Initiative. And these types of suppers occur through, all throughout the country. We participated in that with himself and his administration. He was serious about understanding some of the root causes of some of the hurts and perceptions and realities of different communities, the African-American, Latino and new Americans, and really rallied behind let’s have suppers and understand, you know, where we are as a community and let’s build trust, so that as we move forward as a community and building the new, that no one gets left behind. And that’s been a serious attention spot for him and if you were to ask the mayor what his number one priority is, and we are hoping he has his 12 years in office as he would like, that he wants to eliminate prejudice and disparity in areas. And that’s a that’s a tall order, we understand.
Eve: [00:17:43] A very big goal, yeah.
Christina: [00:17:44] Very tall. But because we come at all of this development, whether it’s the chamber on the economic development side, whether it’s for the EDDC on the real estate development side or other organizations, including our own, we come at it with a balanced perspective of, yes, we know we want a world class downtown and bay-front. Yes, we want to create a community of choice for everyone. But we do it knowing that we also need to embrace our diverse cultures. And I think that balance point always has given us pause to think, do we have the right voices around the table? Do we have our traditional leaders? Where do we need more input from the neighborhood centers, from those civic leaders? How are we ensuring that we are bringing the entire community forward through all the efforts and all the investments that are being made? So, it’s something that’s important to us. I wouldn’t say we have it all figured out yet.
Eve: [00:18:47] Well, does anyone?
Christina: [00:18:48] But we are paying attention to it.
Eve: [00:18:52] Well, that’s great. That’s a difficult problem to solve anywhere in the world. Are there any current trends in economic or community development that you’re following or that you think are very important?
Christina: [00:19:04] One of the trends that we think for us is important is ensuring that we stay true to Erie Pennsylvania. Honoring our past and all the assets that we have to leverage, while building for the future. We hear a lot about, yes, you know, we have access to federal and state resources and, you know, look to those at the right time, but really taking a local approach. We follow Bruce Katz quite a bit. You know, he, of course, talks a lot about the New Localism. He also has been a strong partner the past few years. But really taking that local approach to: what assets do we have, where are our challenges, where are our opportunities and how can we move Erie forward with those assets in mind? And not trying to be something that we’re not. We expect that that will help us be more successful. We’ve learned a lot over the last several decades, certainly over the last several years. We continue to study other communities like Pittsburgh, like Cincinnati, Buffalo, others in our region. But we do think that that local approach and collaboration is going to be key for us.
Eve: [00:20:18] Do you think it’s a moral imperative that large companies like Erie Insurance get involved in building better communities where they are located?
Christina: [00:20:28] Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, it’s always been part of our DNA from our humble beginnings 95 years ago that we would be, above all, in service throughout the communities that we’re a part of. At the same time, the market is demanding it. So, we see that, even for employees now that are coming in, that they themselves want to be active citizens of the communities that they’re a part of and they expect that the organizations that they work for. So that purpose-driven, balanced with the profit-driven, is becoming more and more important but thankfully for us, that’s just the way we’ve always operated. So, it’s, it’s an easy way for us to think about it, quite honestly.
Eve: [00:21:14] And so, how do you think we need to think about our cities and neighborhoods overall, so that we build better places for everyone?
Christina: [00:21:23] For how we think about it, we think, you know, involving those that are in the community today is really important. You know, when I first came into this role, I thought, well, let’s study these other communities and that worked really well there, let’s bring that here, you know. But people live in neighborhoods today, and each neighborhood is very unique. And to talk with neighbors and understand their needs and build for, you know, a future for them and how that then ripples out to other parts of the community, I think that’s one of the better ways that we can do that and be sure that the resources are available to those that don’t typically have access to resources that they need to move their communities forward. At Erie Insurance we have what’s called the service corps. And we have volunteers at the ready. And non-profits and other organizations make requests for events or even just help in painting a library at a school. And we’ll send employees out. You know, employees are willing and ready, you know, to be sent out to help wherever the need is. So, we’ve really leveraged that as a strong platform.
Eve: [00:22:34] Yeah, that’s really lovely. I also think, sometimes when you look at best-case studies, it can derail you a little bit. I think looking at where your community is and how it should grow can be much more powerful.
Christina: [00:22:50] Yeah, yeah. That’s what we’re finding.
Eve: [00:22:52] Yes. So, I have to ask what’s happening in Erie during this horrible pandemic?
Christina: [00:23:01] For Erie, like many if not all other communities, our first priority was response. Response to those that have some basic needs, because of the loss of jobs or, you know, businesses stopping. And so, we actually participated with our Erie Community Foundation in seeding a Covid19 emergency response fund. To meet child-care needs, basic food needs, shelter for organizations that are on the front lines providing that to our community members. We ended up, in a very short time, being able to support 40 different non-profits with over $670,000 as a collective fund. So, that was our first priority, was certainly the response to those basic needs. Now we’re pivoting to, so what do we look like coming out of the recovery? You know, for all that’s been invested, we had this great and still have a great spirit of collaboration. And thankfully, the health systems, Erie Insurance, we’re weathering this. We’re being very thoughtful about the safety and stability and health of our community members and our employees. At the same time, we don’t want to lose sight that there’s much more ahead for us on the positive. And so, our Chamber is leading a Restart Task Force. We had our first meeting last week and we have, again, through a sense of collaboration, we have non-profit organizations, universities, manufacturers, other business groups at the table with working groups gathering data, baseline data, to figure out where our priorities need to be as we start emerging and recovering from the impacts of this pandemic. So, we’re not standing by. We’re not standing still and we’re working together through it.
Eve: [00:24:51] That’s pretty fabulous. So that, you know, none of us really know what the path forward will look like. I’m sure things will be different, but we’re not exactly sure how. So, I think that’s the best you can do. So, the big final question is, what’s next for you in Erie and Erie insurance?
Christina: [00:25:10] That’s a great question. We are paying attention to what our community is asking for through the work of our community foundation, our Chamber, all of the transformational efforts that are taking place. And we’re sort of taking the lead of the community and we’re the next big need may actually be. We created our 50-million-dollar Opportunity Zone Fund last year. So, we’ve been, actually, taking a look at deals related to start-ups that are another part of the engine of a vibrant community. We ourselves, at Erie Insurance, we were a start-up, you know. 95 years ago. H.O. started this insurance company and look at where we are today. So, we know that there are many examples like that across the country and we hope to be a part of restarting the economy for generations to come. So that’s, that’s where we will be.
Eve: [00:26:09] That’s pretty fabulous. Well, thank you very much for talking with me. It actually sounds like you’re having a lot of fun in amongst the challenges, because challenges are fun, right?
Christina: [00:26:18] Yeah.
Eve: [00:26:21] I really hope that continues and I, every time I go to Erie, I do see change and I’m looking forward to seeing more. Thank you very much.
Christina: [00:26:28] That’s great. Thank you, Eve. Appreciate the opportunity. Alright, take care.
Eve: [00:26:41] That was Christina Marsh. In a recent interview Christina said “I love building new. In my career it’s all about building new. It’s about helping others build their own competence, their own capabilities, helping other women succeed in business and growing their own leadership. There is always that teacher in me.” Christina’s skills, which are formidable, are cloaked in her humility. First and foremost, she sees her role as one of service to the community.
Eve: [00:27:14] You can find out more about impact real estate investing and access the show notes for today’s episode at my website, rethinkrealestateforgood.co. While you’re there, sign up for my newsletter to find out more about how to make money in real estate while building better cities.
Eve: [00:27:34] Thank you so much for spending your time with me today. And thank you, Christina, for sharing your thoughts. We’ll talk again soon but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Christina Marsh