By Ruth Simon and Kris Maher | Photographs by Libby March for The Wall Street Journal

ERIE, Pa.—To local leaders, a row of abandoned redbrick buildings in the heart of this Rust Belt city’s ailing downtown presents the best hope to spark a citywide revival.

The buildings—stripped down to their plaster walls, tin ceilings and worn wood floors—are part of a $150 million plan to draw more people to live and work downtown. One building, most recently a biker bar, will house a food hall with seating for nearly 200 people. An old bus terminal will be demolished to make space for an indoor courtyard that will connect to an incubator for culinary startups.

The project is the cornerstone of an effort to reimagine a city once defined by industrial giants such as Hammermill Paper Co. and General Electric Co. Erie has lost more than 30% of its population since 1960. Nearly 27% of its residents live below the federal poverty level, according to the Census Bureau, well above the 14.6% U.S. poverty rate.

Older industrial cities across the Northeast and Midwest are struggling to replace lost manufacturing jobs after decades of deindustrialization. Erie, with a population of about 96,000, presents a new test of whether—and how—a town built on manufacturing can redefine itself, the role a city’s largest employer can play and the potential impact of the new federal opportunity zone program, which provides tax benefits for those who invest capital gains in low-income areas.

“One of the biggest questions policy makers, economists and pundits are asking now is, ‘What do we do for places like Erie?’ ” said John Lettieri, chief executive of the Economic Innovation Group, a nonpartisan think tank that helped develop and promote the opportunity-zone program. “Is there a future for these places when the industry they were built around has withered?”

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