Eight “opportunity zones” throughout the city could soon see new smart city technology equipped with license plate-reading cameras and facial recognition capabilities. Officials say the goal is to boost safety and spur investment.
(TNS) — Additional security cameras, LED lighting and free public Wi-Fi were introduced to downtown Erie in 2018 as part of a pilot program for what's known as smart city technology.
Mayor Joe Schember's administration and other local officials want to bring the same technology to local neighborhoods targeted for reinvestment under the federal Opportunity Zone program.
Schember, in an interview last week, said his administration — working with the Erie Innovation District and others — is working to bring "secure smart city" equipment and technology over the next 12 months to the eight Opportunity Zones in the Erie region that have been designated by Gov. Tom Wolf's office and certified by the U.S. Treasury Department.
According to Schember, that would include security cameras that could read license plates and have facial-recognition capabilities; energy-efficient LED street lights; and free Wi-Fi in public spaces throughout the Opportunity Zone tracts. The intent is to make those areas safer and more attractive for investment.
"It's kind of an aggressive goal. ... But let's get these areas done and within the next three years, I'd like to see that technology throughout the entire city," Schember said.
The city areas approved for the Opportunity Zone program are Erie's bayfront; the former GAF Materials Corp. site on the city's west bayfront; the area near Dobbins Landing that is planned for Scott Enterprises' $150 million Harbor Place development; the Erie Innovation District along State Street; and the neighborhoods near UPMC Hamot and Erie Insurance.
The other tracts are the former International Paper site and the SB3 Industrial Park, both located on East Lake Road; Savocchio Business Park near East 16th Street and Downing Avenue, which would be renamed the Joyce A. Savocchio Opportunity Park as part of the city's plan; and areas of the city adjacent to the GE Transportation facility in Lawrence Park.
Local officials are still working on funding, Schember said.
However, city officials believe the city can save $400,000 to $500,000, each year, on electrical costs by widespread implementation of LED lighting, including in the Opportunity Zones, Schember said.
The city spends about $1.2 million annually for electricity and utility pole maintenance, Schember said.
"We can then use that [savings] to help fund the other components of this," Schember said.
The Opportunity Zone program was created as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2017 as a way to jump-start economic investment in low-income, urban and rural communities.
That program aims to encourage private investment in low-income census tracts by providing tax incentives to investors — money from capital gains can be invested with major tax advantages. City officials estimate that the region's Opportunity Zones could attract up to $600 million worth of investment.
Karl Sanchack, the Innovation District's CEO, said moving smart city technology into the Opportunity Zones is a logical next step for Erie's smart city efforts. Smart cities are urban areas that use different forms of electronic data collection, including sensors, to supply information that is then used to efficiently manage assets and resources.
The downtown smart city pilot project was announced in April 2018 and focused on downtown and Perry Square. New LED lighting, video surveillance cameras, and free Wi-Fi were installed in an area encompassing State Street, between Sixth and 12th streets.
Quantela Inc., a global data analytics company that has worked on similar projects worldwide, helped implement the project, which was paid for by $300,000 in Erie Innovation District funds.
"From an Innovation District standpoint, I take my cues from the city and the Mayor's Office," Sanchack said. "We are going to start by trying to deploy the things we did [downtown] in the Opportunity Zones in 2019, and into 2020."
Sanchack said cameras will help "provide a general sense of flow for traffic," and they will contribute to safety and security. They can also help identify "specific license plates of interest" for Erie police in high-crime areas, he said.
LED lighting can help improve safety and save the city money, he said. And free Wi-Fi in public parks and similar spaces in Opportunity Zone areas benefit the people living and working in those areas and make the zones more enticing to potential developers.
"When you put this kind of investment into those areas, you're well aligned for the other investment that will follow," Sanchack said. "As we improve digital infrastructure, and as others improve the urban land use in those areas, each of those things complements the other. And you're getting more value for the money that's invested."
Brett Wiler, director of capital formation for the Flagship Opportunity Zone Development Corp., agreed with Sanchack.
Wiler left city government recently to focus on federal Opportunity Zone projects full time as part of a new corporation launched by the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership.
"Strong technology infrastructure is going to be attractive to an investor, and those improvements will ultimately improve the quality of life in those areas as well," Wiler said.
Gary Horton, president of the Urban Erie Community Development Corp. at 2046 E. 19th St., said enhancing technology in the Opportunity Zones is crucial for underserved neighborhoods like the ones near the Savocchio business park. Horton's nonprofit recently purchased the park, which is in an Opportunity Zone on the city's east side.
Initial redevelopment plans call for a multi-use health and wellness facility, community solar farm, urban agricultural system and small business incubator.
"We have guest Wi-Fi at the UECDC and we have people all the time sitting in our parking lot or outside our building, trying to access it because they don't have it at home," Horton said. "For kids, and for people in our general neighborhood, that's a big thing. We support wholeheartedly this kind of technology to enhance the safety and the quality of life."
©2019 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.