CHICAGO | The mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, a steel town in the midst of an economic uplift effort, warned a Chicago audience the presence of abandoned buildings and vacant lots can deter community progress.
"It is very pervasive," Mayor Jay Williams said at a forum attended by about 75 urban activists, community leaders and development professionals from the Chicago area. "It also discourages future development opportunities. Even seeing it differently, if you have to pick the lesser of two evils, whether you want an empty lot or an empty building, still, that empty lot would have potential."
Williams spoke at a meeting co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. The agency last year crafted this area's first comprehensive urban development plan since 1909. He related Youngstown's experience in implementing an innovative revitalization plan on the local level, and how those lessons apply to urban development plans on a regional scale.
Williams said the failure of a dominant steel industry in Youngstown left the city feeling like a failure, and changing such a sentiment can be the most difficult challenge to economic recovery.
"We were stuck in this notion of defining the city by one industry," Williams said. "And the failure of that industry also defined the city as a failure, especially for those who had been in that area for a long time."
Williams said communities must diversify their industries in order to stay alive in an increasingly diverse U.S. and world economy.
"It's difficult. The easier thing to do is rely on the 800-pound gorilla, but those industries are looking to diversify and expand their profit margins," he said. "Every community has to somehow figure out how to diversify, how to become less reliant on one sector of the economy."
Gary Cuneen, executive director for nonprofit organization Seven Generations Ahead, said his most pressing concern is how the regional plan will be implemented on the local level.
"I think one, the local communities have to be educated about what the regional plan is. Some of them are, some aren't," he said. "The second piece would be some clear guidance and instruction on how communities can implement elements of a regional plan and how they can incorporate those elements into their own planning."
During his speech, Williams noted that regional plans must account for the unique needs of local areas by bringing leaders of large cities and smaller towns together early on.
"Further out, i.e. Gary and those communities, for those elected officials we need to get together early on and talk about and embrace the 2040 plan," Williams said. "We need to show a joint effort to let the people know that we heard you, and we respect the work that's been done."