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American Tinning & Galvanizing

If you’ve driven along the city of Erie’s West 12th Street corridor lately, you probably know American Tinning & Galvanizing.

The brick building at West 12th and Cherry streets has been adorned with a new mural every year since 2011. Robin Scheppner, company president, commissioned the first mural in honor of the company’s 80th anniversary. In the years since, the mural has changed to celebrate other aspects of the community, including the Perry 200 festival and the United Way of Erie County.

The current mural celebrates Erie’s manufacturing industry, proclaiming “Rust Belt? No way, think Robust Belt.”

The exterior murals might be new additions, but the business has operated from the same block since it began in 1931 – that is, since Scheppner’s grandfather, Fred Carlson, left his previous plating company and opened his own just down the street.

Carlson started his tinning business with just one employee, but growth soon followed – both in terms of expansion into different areas and into a larger portion of the space at 12th and Cherry. Today, the company’s divisions operate under third-generation owner Scheppner, who is the fifth family member to run the company.

The plant hums with activity, with workers busy using specialized techniques to provide protection on metal parts. In one room, aluminum pieces receive an acid bath. In another, heavier steel pieces are treated. The company no longer offers the tinning that remains in the name, but it has become a leader in galvanizing – using up to 40,000 pounds of zinc per month.

In the hot-dip galvanizing room, skilled workers use ropes and pulleys to send metal pieces through a vat of molten zinc – heated to over 835 degrees. This work is done by hand – not by automation, as it is at many other galvanizing companies, Scheppner says.

“This is a craft. It gets to the point where it’s almost intuitive” for the workers to tell when a piece is ready, she says.

Uniquely, American Tinning & Galvanizing also includes a fabrication division. The fabrication business got its start in the 1950s, when the entrepreneurial-minded Carlsons recognized that there was a market for the equipment – including racks and tanks – that was needed in the plating processes. That operation, Carlson Erie, lives on within American Tinning & Galvanizing today, and supplies not just internal operations but many external clients as well.

“Almost all of our competitors are also our customers,” Scheppner says.

About American Tinning & Galvanizing: The company specializes in anodizing, electroplating and galvanizing –all of which are metal finishing techniques used to prevent corrosion. In the fabrication department, the company is branching out and using plastics to create equipment for customers. The shelf life of plastic tanks is ten-fold that of the old steel tanks, Scheppner says. The company serves businesses in the Erie area but also competes for contracts, particularly in aerospace, from outside the region. ATG has been accredited by the National Aerospace Defense Contractors Accreditation Program (NADCAP), after a rigorous certification process. This accreditation “levels the playing field,” Scheppner says, when it comes to competing for aerospace contracts because it assures clients that ATG has met the very precise specifications mandated for aerospace equipment.

Why Erie County: For Scheppner, one of the best parts about Erie County is the culture – generally friendly and helpful, with an emerging sense of a community coming together. There’s evidence of that in her latest initiative to boost the 12th Street corridor. Colorful signs have popped up along the street in recent months, thanks to a joint campaign by a group of 12th Street business. In addition, Scheppner appreciates that Erie County offers “the opportunity to make a great living” – and for her, that also includes the opportunity to “give a great living to 69 other people.”

Challenges of Erie County: Scheppner says that finding qualified middle managers is one of the largest challenges facing her business. She says that the company requires someone with both management skill and a knowledge of the metal finishings industry – a combination that is difficult to find. She is hopeful that in the future, a training program can be developed to teach both required skillsets.

Fun fact: When Scheppner’s grandfather left his previous company to open his own, he chose the name “American” so it would be listed first in the phonebook.

Address: 552 W. 12th St., Erie PA 16501 or www.galvanizeit.com

Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards

At many of the businesses I visit, turnaround time is an important factor. The company’s bottom line depends on how quickly they can get orders out to customers, or how many products they can manufacture on a particular day.

Not so at Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards, in North East Township. There, it’s all about the process – and that process sometimes sets its own pace. “You can’t hurry it,” owner Jeff Ore says.

He’s owned the winery since 2004, when he left his job in the corporate world and moved back to his hometown of North East.

He came home to plant roots, both figurative and literal. He grows about 3 acres of grapes – “it keeps my fingers in viticulture so I know what’s going on, but it lets me focus on the business,” he says – and runs the winery, including making the wine.

Though he grew up among the grape fields, he had to learn the winemaking business – including the details and chemistry that go into the process. Now, however, he speaks knowledgably about each aspect of his operations.

In Penn Shore’s Champagne room, he details the two-year in-bottle fermentation process, holding bottles up to the light to display the sediment and explaining the features that help the bottles withstand the high pressure contained within.

Next door, in the barrel room, he describes the variations in oak – he uses Pennsylvania and French oak – that affect the taste of the wine. The barrels, he explains, are for drier varieties, which the winery does make despite the fact that Erie County wines are better known for being sweet. About 80 percent of Penn Shore’s sales are sweet varieties, Ore says, with the top seller being their Pennsylvania Lambruscano – a red that he describes as starting sweet and ending a bit drier.

He walks us through the bottling process, describing the difference between corks and caps – corks, he says, allow the wine to age, while caps (used mainly for sweet and white wines) are used to seal the bottle so the taste of the wine doesn’t change.

Finally, he leads us to the back patio, where rows of grapevines fan out in a vista that is distinctly North East.

It’s a view that Ore has come to appreciate.

“If I have a bad day, I can go out back and have a glass of wine,” he says. “And if I have a good day, I can go out back and have a glass of wine.”

About Penn Shore Winery & Vineyards: Penn Shore is the oldest licensed winery in Pennsylvania. It received the second license ever issued by the commonwealth after the Pennsylvania Limited Winery Act was passed in 1968 (the first licensee never opened, Ore says). Today, Penn Shore is a popular spot for wine tasting and sponsors a well-attended annual summer concert series, Music in the Vineyard. Though Jeff Ore and his daughter are the only full-time employees – Ore’s wife, Cheryl, is semi-retired – they do hire staff for the concert series and to assist with the field work.

Why Erie County: Jeff Ore says he appreciates the fact that east county has become a destination for wine lovers. Initiatives like the Lake Erie Wine Country trail, as well as the growth of local microbreweries and distilleries, have enhanced tourism around the grape region. In addition, he likes the pace of life, saying that he loves his lifestyle. “If this was a midlife crisis, it really worked out,” he says.

Challenges of Erie County: Like any small business, the Ores face constant challenges of costs and cash flow. In addition, Jeff Ore says, there’s quite a lot of effort that goes into running the operation – both the business side and the winemaking side.

Fun fact: Penn Shore is legally permitted to use the term “Champagne.” A 2006 wine-trade agreement restricted the use of the word to only the bubbly made in the Champagne region of France. But because Penn Shore had been making its wine under an approved label before that, it was grandfathered in – and thus it continues to sell its Pennsylvania Champagne.

Address: 10225 East Lake Road, North East, PA 16428 or www.pennshore.com

Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill

September is Local Food Month in Pennsylvania – and there’s certainly local food in abundance at Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill in Girard Township.

There are tomatoes, grapes and other produce that are fresh from Erie County farms. There are baked goods from a Millcreek Township bakery, wine from a North East Township vineyard and beer from an Erie brewery.

And the apples? Those were picked about 200 yards from the back door.

Owner Gary Faulkner grows eight or nine varieties of apples at the business, which is named after the stream that cuts through the property. Some of the apples are sold to customers, and others go into the cider that is pressed on site.

The cider season is just gearing up – they press cider from around Labor Day to the end of the year, he says. At Godfrey Run, that process involves multiple steps, sending the apples and juice smoothly from one piece of equipment to another through the cider room. The cider is treated with UV light to prevent any potential pathogens and then is bottled up, ready to be sold.

Not all of that juice comes from Godfrey Run trees – Faulkner contracts with other Erie County growers. The business works both ways – several other operations sell Faulkner’s bottled cider.

Faulkner supports growers not just in Erie County but statewide, too. His products are designated PA Preferred (part of an initiative to support local foods), and he is active in the Pennsylvania Apple Program and the Pennsylvania Cider Guild.

In addition, he has been looking into ways to expand and find different uses and new markets for his apples and his cider.

A previous brainstorm created the cider slushy, a favorite treat for visitors to the farm market. I had a taste during my visit to Godfrey Run, and I can see why they’re so popular.

It’s a new twist on a favorite fall flavor that reminds me of how fortunate we are in Erie County, where we have family farms growing fresh produce so close to home.

As Godfrey Run Farm Market’s sign says: “How sweet it is.”

About Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill: Faulkner has been growing produce for 38 years, first part time and now full time. These days, he almost exclusively grows apples. He expanded his farm market over the years, and is now in his seventh year of making cider on site. The market draws a number of tourists, he says – particularly people who pass by on their way to camp or fish. “A lot of people don’t realize that Erie County is the place in the world – not in the state or in the county, but in the world – to go steelhead fishing,” he says.

Why Erie County: For Faulkner, Godfrey Run is an opportunity to do what he enjoys. He worked as an insurance agent for most of his career, and switched over to run Godfrey Run full time just over 11 years ago. Now, he enjoys the chance to work outside. He also is helping to keep alive a tradition of family farms in Erie County. Years ago, he recalls, family farm stands were plentiful, particularly in west county between Fairview and Girard. Now there are fewer, he says.

Challenges of Erie County: Godfrey Run faces challenges from the most unpredictable source – the weather. Like any agricultural operation, it is largely at the whims of Mother Nature. That includes facing various challenges, like apple scab.

Fun fact: Godfrey Run Farm Market & Cider Mill participated in Farm Aid in Pittsburgh on September 16, representing cider makers in the local food concessions at the all-star music festival.

Address: 8958 West Lake Road, Lake City, PA 16423 or www.godfreyrunfarm.com

Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing

 

On quite a few of my 50 in 50 visits, I’ve learned about a business with a long family history, dating back generations.

That wasn’t the case with this one. When I visited Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing, the business was exactly one month old – at least under its new ownership.

Jon Meighan took ownership of the Fairview Township business on Aug. 1. The business, formerly Scully Enterprises, was in need of a new owner, and Meighan, an engineer at GE Transportation who always knew he wanted to own his own business, was looking for an entrepreneurial investment.

It was a good match, Meighan decided. He was able to put together the financing – including a $400,000 loan from the Erie County Redevelopment Authority – to make the purchase, and he renamed the company Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing.

Now he has his eye on more changes. He is looking to grow the company, by attracting new customers and diversifying that base.

More than anything, he wants to build something that lasts in Erie County. There were other parties interested in buying the business, he said – but many of those would have taken the work and moved it out of Erie County.

Though a Syracuse native, Meighan has made his home here, and he wants to build up his company here. And that’s good news for Erie County.

“We’re not selling to consumers in Erie,” he says – instead, Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing mostly sells to outside companies. “That’s money coming into this business, coming into Erie, from elsewhere.”

With Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing, Meighan wants to build a legacy for his young family, and to do right by his employees.

“We want our employees to share in the success,” he said. “As we grow the business, we want them to have a part in it.”

About Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing: The company has 11 employees, with Meighan making a hire to add a new position in the past month. He hopes to add more employees as the business grows. The company, which makes molded rubber products, largely serves the transportation industry, though Meighan has his eye on expanding to recreational vehicles and agriculture. Their customer base is largely within a 12-hour drive from Erie, he says.

Why Erie County: There are several factors that make Erie County appealing, Meighan says. One notable one is the ready-and-able workforce here. For example, Meighan says, the workers at his company had been capably running the business since the previous owner passed away – now he can work with that capable staff to add new customers and grow the business. In addition, the affordability of purchasing a business is appealing, he says. “This wouldn’t have been manageable in Pittsburgh, Cleveland or California,” he says.

Challenges of Erie County: For Meighan, the challenge was finding the right fit – the right business that spoke to his expertise and offered opportunity for growth. Now that he’s found the right businesss, he’s working to build a company that will last for generations.

Fun fact: Meighan might already be lining up the next generation at Lake Erie Rubber & Manufacturing – his daughter was born just five days before he took ownership of the company, and his son celebrated his second birthday on the same day the Erie County Redevelopment Authority awarded him the loan.

Address: 6410 W. Ridge Road, Erie, PA 16506 or www.lakeerierubber.com

Lake Erie Speedway

If there’s one thing A.J. Moore wants you to know about Lake Erie Speedway, it’s this: “We’re still here.”

After the Greenfield Township facility stopped offering weekly racing in 2015, some people thought the business closed, Moore says. But that’s not the case: It merely shifted gears and changed its business model.

Now, Lake Erie Speedway operates as a special-events venue, offering a broader array of entertainment options – yes, including some auto racing.

The past few seasons have included successful ventures like Crash-A-Rama and Monster Truck events, as well as the recent Nitro Circus and Lantern Fest events.

The decision to take the racetrack in a different direction proved to be a good one, Moore says – both for the business and for the overall community.

The numbers alone bear that out:

During Crash-A-Rama and Monster Truck events, only about 60 percent of Lake Erie Speedway’s patrons come from Pennsylvania, Moore says – the rest come from neighboring states to spend their entertainment dollars here.

The Nitro Circus event in August filled the grandstand with 4,000 fans. Last weekend’s Lantern Fest drew 5,000 visitors – some driving seven or eight hours to get here.

Many of those visitors end up supporting other local businesses, including restaurants and hotels, Moore points out. Last year’s Lantern Fest, which drew 3,000 fans, used about 600 hotel rooms, he says.

It’s part of Lake Erie Speedway’s goal to become a destination in the broader community.

“We try to bring in events that help the economy and help keep people employed,” he says.

Though the 2017 season is wrapping up, there are still a few big events coming up.

On Sept. 9, the National Fireworks Association will take a break from their annual expo (held at the Bayfront Convention Center) to offer a two-hour public fireworks display, set to music, at Lake Erie Speedway.

And on Sept. 29-30, the season will close with the 67th annual Race of Champions, which features 100 to 125 cars in a weekend of racing. The race – the second longest consecutive auto-racing event in North America, second only to the Indy 500 – promises to bring yet another crowd to the grandstand at Lake Erie Speedway.

With events like that, it should be increasingly clear that Lake Erie Speedway is still in business. “We’re alive and well,” Moore says. “We’re still doing our best to bring big events to the community.”

About Lake Erie Speedway: As the name implies, the Speedway got its start in auto racing, holding weekly races on its 3/8-mile asphalt track. On an event day, the facility employs about 50 people part-time. Moore, as the operations manager, is the only full-time employee. As an outdoor venue, Lake Erie Speedway closes for the winter, leaving its operations to the summer season. “We only have 90 days to do what we want to do,” Moore says.

Why Erie County: Lake Erie Speedway has found valuable support from the Erie County community, particularly from the Erie Sports Commission, Moore says. The Commission has helped Lake Erie Speedway not just bring in events, but to bring in a variety of events that help to diversify the pool of patrons.

Challenges of Erie County: The weather is a notable challenge for the outdoor venue. But another challenge – competition – is almost a good thing, Moore says. Lake Erie Speedway doesn’t schedule events that would compete with other area festivals, including Roar on the Shore and Discover Presque Isle. But, as Moore says, “Erie’s not a place that doesn’t have stuff to do.” In the summertime, that means Lake Erie Speedway is competing for entertainment dollars with church festivals, beaches, free concerts, fairs and more. “There’s a lot to do. There’s plenty to go around, as long as people go out and do it,” Moore says.

Fun fact: Lake Erie Speedway has 1,396 parking spaces, with more room to park in surrounding fields.

Address: 10700 Delmas Drive, North East, PA 16428 or www.lakeeriespeedway.com

Contine Corp.

The secret to Contine Corp.’s success just might be the company’s flexibility.

Contine, in Lawrence Park Township, manufactures mechanical and electromechanical assemblies to their customers’ specifications.

Owner and co-founder Connie Ellrich describes Contine as a job shop – providing  a variety of manufacturing services to their OEM customers.  As a result, the company’s leadership is always looking ahead, working to secure the next job or contract.

Experience working with customers throughout multiple industries has enhanced Contine’s capabilities and flexibility. “We have to constantly change,” says Kelly Heberle, quality control manager. “Customers have their needs, and we have to adapt to accommodate them.”

So far, that adaptability has proved to be a successful model for Contine, which has grown and flourished over the years. The company, which originated in Cleveland in 1981, moved to Erie in 1983 and quickly outgrew its rented space. In 1985, Ellrich purchased a new facility, expanding it three times to its current footprint of about 30,000 square feet.

Part of that growth has included the purchase of plastic injection molding equipment.  In addition, Contine’s facility houses both small and large assembly areas, a full service machine shop  and two overhead cranes.

But much more work is underway at Contine. Around the shop, workers are busy assembling devices – including delicate equipment and intricate electronics – with a dexterity born of practice.

“It’s something different every day,” Heberle says.

About Contine Corp.: The company’s agility has been bolstered by a rock-solid stability. Contine has a management team that has spent years working together to build the company, and it also boasts a low turnover rate among permanent employees, Ellrich says.   A good portion of their work has been in the transit industry, which Ellrich hopes will continue to provide a steady influx of business for Contine.

Why Erie County: Contine has found it beneficial to work with other local businesses in Erie County. And overall, Ellrich says, Erie County has been a nice home for Contine. “We have been very successful here,” she says. “It’s been a great place to grow a business.”

Challenges of Erie County: Contine faces some challenges that are common to small businesses, particularly when it comes to health-care costs. The company has found a strategy to contend with another challenge faced by many small businesses: Finding quality employees. Contine uses some temporary workers through a local placement agency, and has then hired people as permanent employees through that process.

Fun fact: Contine is a certified Woman Business Enterprise (WBE).

Address: 1820 Nagle Road, Erie, PA 16510 or www.continedbe.com

Great Lakes Cast Stone

Great Lakes Cast Stone operates on a quiet street in Girard. But once you know what to look for, you can see evidence of the company’s architectural cast stone products all around the region.

For example, you can see the company’s work in the decorative touches on the amphitheater in downtown Erie’s Perry Square; on the new parking garage on Erie’s bayfront; and on the new Crawford County Judicial Center in Meadville.

Steven Henderson, company president, hopes to see more work as other construction projects get underway in the region.

The current level of commercial construction is in many ways unprecedented, offering opportunities for local suppliers but also for owners to patronize local suppliers and contractors – which can maximize the economic impact of a project.

Most of Great Lakes Cast Stone’s work, however, heads to projects out of town, as was evidenced by the rows and rows of decorative pieces – in all stages of completion – that were destined for upstate New York.

As we toured the plant, Henderson walked us through Great Lakes Cast Stone’s wet-pour and dry-tamp processes.

With the wet-pour process, workers pour concrete into molds, where it hardens overnight. The frames are then removed, and the finished pieces are left to cure for 28 days.

With the dry-tamp process – which Henderson compares to building a sand castle – a worker scoops powdery mix into molds, packing it down with high pressure. The mold is flipped over, and the molded piece is revealed – though, like a sand castle, it is fragile and can easily crumble. After being treated overnight with high heat and humidity, however, it hardens to look like limestone.

“Our business is very visual,” Henderson says. “The look of architectural precast or cast stone is a cost effective way to enhance the design of any project.”

Henderson is relatively new to the cast-stone industry – he has business interests in the city of Erie, and about four years ago was looking to branch out into something new. He found what he was looking for in Girard. The company’s previous owner was seeking a buyer that could provide needed local management while maintaining a working affiliation.

For Henderson, that worked out well – he was able to purchase the business, and in the process save 18 jobs that would have been lost if the facility had closed. Plus, it’s a good fit for him personally.

“Each project is completely different,” he says. “I like the work.”

About Great Lakes Cast Stone: The company covers 18 states, roughly ranging from New England down to Virginia in the east, and western Ohio down to Mississippi in the west. Their work is predominantly commercial, with about 70 percent wet-pour and the remainder dry-tamp. The company is certified, and Henderson details with pride the procedures – including frequent testing – that the staff goes through to ensure that they only offer quality products. “This stuff doesn’t look that precise, but a little change in sand or color throws everything off,” he says. The quality of the finished product is the most important consideration.

Why Erie County: To Henderson, Erie County has the benefits of being a pleasant place to live, with a low cost of living and without urban stress. In addition, he has seen first-hand the benefits of working with agencies in the county, namely the Erie County Redevelopment Authority. He was able to purchase Great Lakes Cast Stone with the help of the authority, which he praised for making the process easy and seamless.

Challenges of Erie County: Some of Henderson’s challenges are common to small businesses, and to businesses in his line of work. For example, he finds it challenging to find extra money in the budget for technical improvements he would like to make. The long-term nature of construction projects also means that he must play a long game to make sure there is the right amount of future work for the company. “In this business, it’s feast or famine,” he says. In addition, however, Henderson is frustrated when he sees out-of-town businesses doing architectural precast work on local projects. He actively supports local businesses when possible – including Team Hardinger, for transportation – and wishes that Erie County projects would be more active in supporting Erie County businesses.

Fun fact: Transportation can be expensive for Great Lakes Cast Stone – their cement weighs 150 pounds per cubic foot.

Address: 711 Beaver Road, Girard, PA 16417 or www.greatlakescaststone.com.

Animalistic Chainsaw Carving

On busy Route 6, Scott Dow has carved out a niche business for himself – pardon the pun. With his business, Animalistic Chainsaw Carving, he is showing how arts and business intersect.

Dow’s business, which straddles Elgin Borough and Wayne Township, is immediately recognizable to anyone who has traveled along Route 6. A hulking Bigfoot lumbers through the parking lot. A wizened face emerges from a tree stump. And ghoulish zombies rise from the ground and hang from a roof.

The creations – intricate and whimsical – continue indoors, where Dowd has a gallery of creations, including more fine-arts pieces.

It reflects his artistic training. Dow, who has a master’s in fine arts from Edinboro University, wanted to find a creative outlet when he started his chainsaw carving.

“I wasn’t going to just carve bears,” he says. “I was going to be different from everyone else.”

But, Dow says wryly, it turns out that “people want bears,” and they’ve turned out to be his second-biggest seller (eagles hold the top spot).

Watching Dow carve is observing an artist at work. As his chainsaw cuts and slices, a shape gradually emerges from a towering tree stump. Soon it will be another Bigfoot, this one with arms swinging. Dow occasionally steps back from the spray of wood chips to view the piece from different angles before diving back in, the path of his chainsaw established.

In nice weather, Dow carves his creations in the parking lot outside his workshop, in view of the traffic passing by on Route 6. It’s a prime location that has supported his business, allowing him to dedicate himself full time to the business for the past five years.

On the day we were there, several cars pulled off – either to browse or buy – during our brief visit. One couple, from Florida, had been there before and stopped again to explore.

The traffic on Route 6 was a pleasant surprise for him – a prime location that has supported his business and brought out-of-town visitors past his shop.

“There’s always a lot of campers and kayaks coming by, and these people are always in a good mood,” Dow says.

About Animalistic Chainsaw Carving: Dow uses white pine, mainly sourcing his material from felled trees that loggers don’t want or leave behind. He does some on-site carving work and participates in a few festivals, but he’s mostly content to carve at his workshop and sell from his gallery on Route 6. In general, he prefers to carve a piece first, finding something suitable for the tree, and sell it once complete, rather than taking orders.

Why Erie County: Dow has an easy time accessing quality material – logs and tree stumps – for his pieces, thanks to the plentiful forest land in our area. In addition, he has found that his location along Route 6 has been a boon for his business, as it brings both Erie County residents and out-of-area tourists right past his door. “From Memorial Day to Labor Day, this is an amazing place to be,” he says.

Challenges of Erie County: The seasonal traffic also has a downside, which includes an annual slowdown in the colder weather months. In addition, the job itself has its challenges. Dow must grapple with physical demands of the job – including staying healthy and safe. He also faced a learning curve when he first began his business. Dow had never before used a chainsaw before starting his venture, and says it took years to master the upkeep and use of the equipment.

Fun fact: The biggest piece Dow has created is a 22-foot Tyrannosaurus rex that he installed – emerging from woods into a clearing – for a customer in the Catskills.

Address: 11543 U.S. Route 6, Corry, PA 16407

Laser Creations and Windtek

Laser Creations operates out of a sprawling facility next to railroad tracks in Platea. Decades ago, when Platea was known as Lockport, the building was home to a lumber mill on the banks of the Erie Extension Canal.

It’s fitting, then, that today Laser Creations operates a full wood shop, creating custom wood products for laser engravings.

“We’re still working with lumber, from rough cut to finished product,” says owner Mark Youngs.

Those products range from wooden plaques and key chains to ring boxes and decorative keepsakes, all engraved with custom logos, designs or seals.

But the wood work is only a portion of the business. About 40 percent of Laser Creations’ business comes from doing jobs for other companies, Youngs says. That includes creating laser-cut items for advertising and other uses.

The job-shop work dates back to the company’s beginnings, when it was founded as a business services company in 1969 by Youngs’ father, Walter Youngs – a man that Mark Youngs describes as “a constant entrepreneur.”

Mark Youngs must have inherited some of that entrepreneurial spirit: Laser Creations isn’t the only enterprise in the family.

Another Platea business, Windtek, is owned by Youngs’ wife, Wendy.

Windtek, less than a mile down the road from Laser Creations, constructs and sells windsocks and runway lights.

In the small shop run out of the Youngs’ garage, Wendy Youngs oversees the company founded by a family friend – and fellow aviation enthusiast. Today, Windtek takes pride in selling quality equipment to airports and airfields, as well as oil rigs and other facilities.

Wendy Youngs, who has run the business for 17 years, handles the business side, while other employees work on stitching the heavy-duty windsocks and constructing other products.

“It’s an opportunity for a little retirement business,” Wendy Youngs says.

About Laser Creations and Windtek: Laser Creations had its start on the city of Erie’s east side before Mark Youngs’ father purchased the property in Platea. At one point, the bustling company had 50-plus employees working two or three shifts. Today, about six employees work at Laser Creations – though Mark Youngs believes that the company has the potential for growth, with some added marketing. Laser Creations is largely a regional operation, contracting with a Butler-based company. Windtek, which has four part-time employees, mainly sells to aviation customers who see ads in trade publications. Wendy and Mark are engrained in the aviation culture, and as a result are friendly with Windtek’s competitors. Windtek sources its heavy-duty premium windsock fabric from the mills in the South – “We’re all-American,” Mark Youngs says proudly.

Why Erie County: For the Youngs family’s businesses, Erie County presents a good geographic location – even in the mostly rural Platea area. “At one point, we were the best kept secret in Erie County,” Mark Youngs says. Erie County is not too far from major metropolitan areas, with travel easily accessible, he says.

Challenges of Erie County: Some of the challenges of Erie County are really on a broader level, Mark Youngs says – foreign competition is a challenge for his business, with lower-quality, mass-produced items made overseas available for less than the hand-made products created in his shop. He also sees federal and state regulation and red tape as a detriment to encouraging the entrepreneurs that are badly needed to restart the economy. He sees a need to build up Erie County’s economy as a whole, as smaller businesses like his feed off larger businesses.

Fun fact: Mark and Wendy Youngs also own the Green Roof Inn in Platea.

Address: Laser Creations, 10043 Peach St., Girard, PA 16417 or www.lasercreations.com. Windtek, 10451 Peach St., Girard, PA 16417 or www.bestwindsocks.com.

Port Erie Plastics

My visit to Port Erie Plastics, in Harborcreek Township, was a reminder of how prevalent plastics are in our daily lives.

I was sitting at a table talking with some of the company’s managers about the business when Jon Connole, the sales and marketing manager, suddenly took notice of my keychain.

“That’s one of ours,” he said.

It turns out, he was right. My keychain is from Erie’s Munio, and it was made right there in Harborcreek.

As we toured Port Erie Plastics, I saw more everyday items coming off the production lines: Christmas tree stands. Storage bins. Pill boxes.

In a room tucked away in a corner of the 300,000-square-foot facility, specialty items were being imprinted by a laser printer. This division handles products made for a company run by Jim Kelly, the Buffalo Bills legend.

The broad range of products, serving a variety of industries, bear out the plastics-driven future that founder Henry Witkowski foresaw when he launched the business in 1953.

The company has grown since its founding, moving from Erie’s east side to its current site in Harborcreek in 1966.

“We were the only thing out here then,” said William Witkowski, Henry’s son and the current owner and CEO.

The Harborcreek facility, which has steadily grown in the decades since, is ready for another expansion (more on that later), in order to accommodate the steady growth of business.

The company, which has hired more than 30 people in the past few weeks, is looking to hire about another 20, said John Johnson, the company’s president.

“It’s new customers and new products,” he said of Port Erie Plastics’ recent growth.

About Port Erie Plastics: The company, which started with one injection molding machine, now runs 90 machines and specializes in custom plastic injection molding.  The company also offers other services to customers, and runs its own in-house tool room and engineering facilities. The company has more than 400 employees, both in its main facility on the east side of Troupe Road and at its 275,000-square-foot warehousing facility, just a bit south on the west side of Troupe Road. The company has been in growth mode for the past 15 to 20 years, Johnson said, with an extra boost coming in the past several months.

Why Erie County:  The leadership team at Port Erie Plastics sees many positives in the quality of life that the community offers for workers. That includes community assets, recreational opportunities and a relatively easy commute. In addition, the company has seen the advantages of having Penn State Behrend’s  plastics engineering programs in their backyard. In fact, the Witkowski family joined with other Erie-area plastics companies to help initiate and develop the program at Behrend. As a result, Port Erie Plastics and other local plastics companies enjoy the benefits of Behrend-trained interns and employees.

Challenges of Erie County: While Port Erie Plastics is able to find workers for its plastics engineering positions, filling general employment positions remains a challenge. The company struggles to find qualified workers. As that demand for workers is only expected to increase in the next decade, Port Erie Plastics identified a need for more pathways to manufacturing jobs – whether in high school or through a community college. Another challenge of being located in Erie County is even more pressing, however: Port Erie Plastics has been frustrated by delays in getting a permit to add on to their existing facility. The plans originally called for work to begin in the spring; due to delays, now the company is worried about getting the work done before winter sets in.

Fun fact: The Witkowski Building, part of the Engineering Complex at Penn State Behrend, was named for William Witkowski.

Address: 909 Troupe Road, Harborcreek, PA 16421 or www.porterie.com.

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