| Erie Times-News
Debra Smith, city of Erie economic and community development director
Debra Smith, the city of Erie’s new director of economic and community development, is the first Black woman to lead a city department.
Debra Smith never thought about making history.
When Smith began working for the city of Erie as an employment and training accountant in December 1985, the Erie native and Indiana University of Pennsylvania graduate was happy to have found a steady job working with numbers.
She figured that her time with city government would eventually lead to a career as a certified public accountant.
Later, she began crunching the numbers for a number of city economic and community development initiatives, and that’s when things changed.
Smith started to comprehend the humanity represented in those ledgers, reports and spreadsheets — and realized she wanted to do even more.
“I was dealing with Community Development Block Grants, Home Investment Partnership money, workforce development initiatives and lots of different regulations. I was now on the programmatic side of things versus just the financial side,” Smith said.
“I was able to meet with different program directors and see what was happening with the programs we were funding and how they were benefiting low- and moderate-income people.
“My passion is community service,” Smith said, “and this job made me want to be even more of a public servant.”
Almost 35 years later, Smith now oversees the city’s Department of Economic and Community Development, and is the first Black woman to lead a city department.
She was appointed economic development director by Mayor Joe Schember in July after her predecessor and former boss, Chris Groner, was tabbed to lead Erie County government’s new Office of Capital Finance and Lending.
Smith said that while she’s proud to be the city’s first Black female department head, she believes her qualifications and experience are primarily responsible for her appointment.
“I’m honored that my name’s out there for that,” Smith said. “But I think my performance in terms of my job and how I have handled my responsibilities is what got me here. And I have faith that God would not put me in a position that I could not handle.”
Previously, Smith had been the city’s assistant economic development director. She also worked for several years before that as a grant administrator, managing the flow of the millions of dollars in state and federal grants the city receives each year for economic development and community improvements.
That includes CDBG dollars, which come to Erie from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The city relies on CDBG funding for community projects such as street paving, sidewalk improvement, housing programs and homeless shelters. CDBG funds are also used to partially fund a number of nonprofit social service agencies and Erie’s community centers.
Erie received roughly $3.2 million in block grant funds this year. In addition to those funds, the city also receives two other types of HUD funding annually.
Home Investment Partnership funds are used for programs emphasizing homeownership opportunities, projects that promote the stabilization of neighborhoods and the development of rental properties for low- and moderate-income residents.
The Emergency Shelter Grant program makes funds available to assist in the operation of emergency shelters and transitional living facilities in Erie.
Combined, the city received roughly $1.1 million in 2020 for those two federal programs.
Further, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the city additional federal dollars in 2020.
Erie was awarded $1,866,324 in flexible CDBG program funding and an additional $931,503 Emergency Shelter Grant, for a total of $2,797,827, as part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act stimulus package, which appropriated $5 billion to HUD for emergency Community Development Block Grants and Emergency Shelter Grants to help cities nationwide.
All of that funding comes with myriad stipulations and regulations the city must follow in terms of how it is spent and what types of programs/uses are eligible.
Schember said Smith was “a natural choice” to succeed Groner.
“Actually, it was Chris’ recommendation that Deb replace him,” Schember said. “I agreed. She is so well qualified it’s incredible.”
“The experience she has, her detailed knowledge of the department and all the programs and how they do things is invaluable,” Schember said.
Groner added that Smith “has so many technical strengths that are really valuable to the office.
“Her abilities always enabled me to focus more on business development and other economic development efforts,” Groner said. “With her years of experience, she’s able to hit the ground running.”
Smith’s new responsibilities also include helping to drive the city’s implementation of Erie Refocused, the multiyear, comprehensive development plan.
Erie Refocused addresses Erie’s needs in a number of areas, including housing, transportation, land use and economic development
The plan also emphasizes the development of strategies to stabilize neighborhoods citywide.
Asked to describe her approach to furthering Erie Refocused, Smith said: “We have housing rehabilitation programs we work on with the Erie Redevelopment Authority. We also have an in-house program where we are now assisting potential homebuyers. Those kinds of programs support what we’re attempting to do with Erie Refocused in terms of community development.”
Shantel Hilliard, the executive director of the Booker T. Washington Center at 1720 Holland St., has worked closely with Smith over the years regarding CDBG funding the neighborhood center receives for its programs.
“She can answer any question or concern you have. She explains the regulations. She makes sure your applications are correct,” Hilliard said of Smith.
Hilliard added that Smith assisted the Booker T. Washington Center “tremendously” when the center received $75,000 in federal CARES Act funding earlier this year to implement a food distribution program for needy residents affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“She understands not only the process, but also the importance of this kind of programming and how it works at the ground level,” Hilliard said.
Gary Horton, executive director of the Urban Erie Community Development Corp., was even more blunt about Smith’s abilities. Horton has also worked with Smith over the years regarding federal funding.
“She should have had that job years ago,” Horton said. “She’s more than qualified and has been for a long time. And one of her biggest strengths is that she’s one of us. She’s from this community.”
Smith is married to Darrell Smith, the director of operations and men’s ministries at the Erie City Mission, and has three daughters and a 7-year-old grandson.
She describes herself as a “woman of faith” who is actively involved with various service projects through her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
Asked about her management style, Smith said she “tries to treat everyone fairly. I try to keep track of what’s going on with people without micromanaging.
“And I try to make sure the agencies (we) work with know what is eligible for funding and what is not and that everyone follows the regulations,” Smith said. “I really enjoy this work.”