Creating relevance in the Rust Belt

2011-04-27T19:00:00Z 2011-09-15T13:50:05Z Creating relevance in the Rust BeltBy Bowdeya Tweh, (219) 933-3316

GARY | Battling blight, population loss, crime and criticism are challenges for any mayor to face.  

But Youngstown, Ohio, Mayor Jay Williams said Wednesday one of the biggest battles he's had to fight in his two terms is helping to change the mindset of people – especially younger ones – who believe the city isn't worth saving.

While speaking at the Gary and Region Investment Project's first Urban Exchange event, Williams, 39, said residents have helped support the city's revitalization plan and create positive momentum that hasn't been seen in decades.

Youngstown was a bustling steel mill town in the early half of the 20th century, but it fell on hard times with the decline of the industry in the 1970s. In the last 60 years, the city lost more than half of its population and 30,000 jobs.

But Williams said there was a turning point for the city in December 2002. About 1,300 residents showed up to a community meeting and described the need for a plan to be able to survive political transitions and create long-term benefits for people. The idea grew into Youngstown 2010, which is evolving into Youngstown 2020.

The city's plan included the acceptance of Youngstown being a smaller city, better defining the city's role within the region, improving the city's image and calling people to action.

"We had to go through a cathartic process of really changing a mindset, changing a generation," Williams said. "There was a generation of folks who couldn't see Youngstown for anything other than the steel mills."

The process doesn't happen overnight, but Williams said the Gary area can be successful since Youngstown has been able to land large-scale economic development opportunities, persuade younger people to stay in the area and improve its national profile. 

The Times Media Co. and the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council are leading the Gary and Region Investment Project, which spawned from the One Region, One Vision initiative. The project aims to bring together community leaders, residents, national experts and state and federal representatives to develop an investment strategy to revitalize Northwest Indiana's urban core.

"We dream of a city, we dream of a region where people will have a better quality of life," Gary Mayor Rudy Clay said.

Williams' original appearance to the region was postponed by the early February blizzard and the current trip was nearly marred because his flight was diverted from Chicago to Cleveland. Attendees, including U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., praised Williams' commitment to speaking to region leaders and called him inspirational. Williams received a standing ovation from about 70 people attending the event at The Steel Yard.

"I hope 10 years from now, the mayor of Gary is asked to speak to another community about the success they have had in our community because of your inspiration today," Visclosky said to Williams.

Times Publisher Bill Masterson Jr. said one takeaway from Williams' presentation is that Gary residents can't wait for a business such as U.S. Steel to save the area from ruin.

Borrowing words from Michael Jackson's song "Man in the Mirror," Don Babcock, NIPSCO's director of economic development, said in order for Northwest Indiana to be a better place, people need to take a look at themselves and make a change.

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