ERIE, Pa. (AP) — When others chose to leave, they stayed.
When female friends, colleagues and acquaintances continued to move to cities like Pittsburgh, Denver and Nashville to develop their careers and start families, these women chose Erie for their futures.
They chose Erie to plant their roots, to make their marks, to take their risks.
And perhaps they did it against the odds, according to Erie Vital Signs, a project undertaken by Erie Community Foundation, United Way of Erie County, the Nonprofit Partnership and the Erie Regional Chamber & Growth. In 2010, Erie Vital Signs indicated there was a "brain drain" — or loss of young people — in the city. It reported the Erie area had more brain drain than the national average, a phenomenon that had been occurring for about a decade.
But brain gain is taking its place. The median age of full-time workers in Erie County was 35.4 for women and 35.6 for men in 2016, according to the United States Census Bureau American Community Survey.
Take a quick look at most company directories in Erie County, and you'll find the names of young 30-something females next to titles like chief executive, director and manager.
Why do they choose to stay in Erie? Why do they continue to choose Erie time again even though lucrative job offers may come in from bigger companies or other cities?
To kick off Women's History month, the Erie Times-News asked women between the ages of 33 and 40 what made them choose Erie as home and what they hope for the future.
When LeAnna Nieratko encounters a challenge, she finds herself thinking of her grandmother.
"She was the general manager at the Yacht Club and that was a long time ago, before that was really a thing that a woman would be in such a position," Nieratko said. "She had to be extra tough because she had to retrofit herself to a men's style of leadership in a men's club."
Nieratko, 33, is the general manager of the Whole Foods Co-Op, 1341 W. 26th St., a position she's held since 2016.
She was born and raised in Erie, graduated from Gannon University and then lived in Nashville; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Youngstown, Ohio; and Grove City. "At the time I decided to come here, I got a job offer simultaneously with a company in Columbus, Ohio," she said.
Nieratko was employed at the time with Bath and Body Works and was invited to open a "flagship" store with the company, meaning she would be managing one of the company's largest, most visible stores in Columbus.
"I was faced with the choice to further my corporate career or move back here (to Erie) where I was from and where my boyfriend at the time was," she said.
It wasn't too difficult a choice for her.
"Once I got here, I decided if this is the community I'm going to raise my family in, I want to be engaged and I can't do that from a corporate position," she said. "That's why the co-op fits me so well. It's community-owned. I have deep roots in Erie and I knew it was the best place to take my skill set and a place I could be impactful."
What truly drew her back to the city was the opportunity to rebuild it.
"Erie has everything or at least has the potential for everything and we're in this interesting stage where we get to be builders," she said. "A lot of people that have left, they go somewhere that already has an infrastructure and they kick back and relax. I want to be a part of rebuilding this community and seeing it change."
She got married and has started her family here. She is a stepmother to Lilly, 9, and mother to Lyle, 3, and Rosie, 20 months.
"It's also such a cool environment to raise kids, especially young girls," she said. "I can show them they can do anything they want to do."
Chanel Cook has always considered herself the underdog.
"Erie is the home of the underdog and I consider myself to be the underdog rather than a statistic," said Cook, 39, the outreach services manager for the Erie County Public Library. "For me, it's about the people and the mindset."
As a female, minority and single mom, Cook continues to find her niche in the city where she was born and raised and earned degrees from Gannon and Mercyhurst universities. She moved to Cleveland after college but returned here to raise her newborn daughter with family support. She began working for U.S. Rep. Phil English, then joined the staff of U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, who is now the now Erie County executive.
Dahlkemper recruited her when she became county executive. "I ended up working for the county executive, the director of administration, and the solicitor, so I was really busy," she said. She learned how to lobby for change. "My job was ultimately restructured, with pay grade and title changes. I'd been advocating for myself for some time," she said. "Although it didn't impact me, it benefited my successor, also a woman."
She also recommended the county designate a diversity officer, a position that was ultimately denied by Erie County Council. "Although it was denied by council, it did help the county executive, her directors, and our HR department think and operate differently. That was a proud moment for me," she said.
Knowing her experience and skill set, Erie County Public Library's Executive Director Erin Wincek offered her a position with the library. "My daughter will soon attend college and I needed to prioritize time with her," Cook said. "The promotion was a good move for us."
What she's been most proud of her during her professional career in Erie is her ability to create diversity where it wasn't before.
"Showing people that differences are OK, whether it's differences in thought, skin color, religion, perspective," she said. "At the core, we're all humans so we need to remember that a little bit of humanity and a little bit of humility go a long way."
Abby Skinner has always thought of Erie as her "destination city."
Skinner, 37, is the city of Erie's grant writer, a position created by new Erie Mayor Joe Schember's administration in January.
She grew up in Warren County and recalls taking trips to Erie for vacations and shopping with her family. After college and graduate work, she took up an interest in grant writing and served as a grant writer for the Warren County Historical Society, for the Regional Center for Workforce Excellence and for the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership.
"Either in a volunteer capacity or actually being employed by an organization, it's something I've really been passionate about and have been consistently doing over my entire career," she said.
After three years in Erie, Skinner said she learned a lot about leadership and how her involvement with nonprofits has allowed her to grow personally and professionally. "I've been involved in a lot of wonderful leadership with the nonprofits I've worked with and here at the administration in City Hall," she said. She was impressed by her involvement with the Northwest Pennsylvania Area Health Education Center and working with Patty Stubber. "They partner with everyone — medical professionals, local universities, health care ... it was a wonderful experience," she said.
Skinner is also making a big commitment to her "destination city" this year. "I'm very excited to buy a house downtown. I started looking once the weather got nicer, and I'm looking forward to moving close to the office," she said.
Wei-Shin Lai, M.D., 40, joked that she didn't fit in with the rest of these 30-somethings. But Lai started AcousticSheep, headphones that are comfortable enough to sleep in, while still in her 20s in 2007. She came to Erie because her husband was born and raised in the area, and they had a goal of bringing technology jobs to Erie.
"We started the company and brought a lot of young blood, technology and interesting, good jobs to the area," she said. "We really have a West Coast type of management," she said.
Lai felt there was a job gap between older baby boomers and millennials, and she and her husband wanted to bridge that gap. Staying in Erie has been easy because her family loves the snow, the seasons and the lake. She said her son is also getting a very good education at Erie Day School.
"I like to think that our company is helping to set an example of what's achievable in Erie. With the talent here, we can grow and recruit more people. It might take five to 10 more years, but the city is making a comeback," she said.
Lai came to Erie as a physician and thought that she would benefit the world as a doctor, but instead, she is helping people all over the world sleep better.
"It doesn't matter what I'm doing. My role is to help people, and this is the definition of feeling fulfilled, having happiness and success. It all has to do with how you're contributing," she said.
One of the youngest nursing directors at UPMC Hamot at age 34, Matson is the director of the Mother Baby Unit at Magee-Womens. Born and raised in Erie, she thought she wanted to be "a college fashion design major and go to New York City." Instead, she looked for a career that could bring her back home.
"I love Erie. I love everything it has to offer," she said. She got into nursing when there was a big need for nurses and the women's hospital was about to open at Hamot. "It was perfect timing," she said.
"I've been passionate about leadership from day one. I was born prepared," she said. She said she had been a sorority president and a restaurant general manager before graduating from nursing school. "I took every opportunity and ran with it," she said.
Matson had good role models. "I was brought up by two strong women," she said. "My grandmother was the widowed mother of six, and my mother was a single mom for the first eight years of my life. It's all about the way you want to look at your future."
The married mom of three, ages 7, 4 and 2, Matson and her husband Dan believe "there's a resurgence here," she said. Her husband is a member of Local 449 Steamfitters union and has a hands-on job in an industry experiencing many retirements. "We're not going anywhere. We're in it for the long haul and we live right next door to my mother," she said.
Kristi Bailey cherishes her daily commute from McKean to Erie. The drive might take upwards of an hour in some cities, but she completes it twice daily in around 25 minutes.
"There's never traffic and it's just a place to decompress after a long day on the ride home or to get ready for my day coming up on the way in," said Bailey, director of business development and services at Erie Federal Credit Union and president of the Young Erie Professionals. "I can live outside of the city and still feel a part of the city."
Bailey, 33, realizes how lucky she is to do this. In fact, it qualifies as one of the reasons she planted roots in Erie to establish her family and her career. She has two children — Noah, 5, and Quinn, 16 months.
The Erie native and her husband John are planted in the region. After graduating from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a degree in communications, she decided to search for a job in Erie.
"I've never had the want or the desire to go elsewhere," she said. "I was fortunate enough to land a job early on in my career here and have chosen to remain here since."
But there were offers. Her husband received a job offer in South Carolina he was seriously considering. "You obviously think of those opportunities, but what I always come back to is that what else would I be looking for?" she said. "So many people bash Erie and people my age move away. There is so much to do in Erie and I always ask, 'What is it exactly that you're looking for that this city doesn't have to offer?'"
She is invested in the development of young professionals in Erie. In 2017, she decided to get involved with Young Erie Professionals after seeing the organization decline over the past few years.
"So many young people in Erie want to be involved, but they just don't know how," she said. "I felt like I could step up and organize this and make it happen."
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com