YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio | City leaders admit it took a long time to sell residents on ideas to remake Youngstown.
And nearly 10 years after the start of the city's comprehensive planning and development initiative, Youngstown 2010, one of the key parts of the plan has been difficult to accomplish.
Accepting the city needs to be smaller is one thing, but physically shrinking the city's footprint proved contentious after the plan had its first public presentation in 2002.
The Rev. Edward Noga, pastor of St. Patrick's Church on the city's south side, said some people had concerns about whether they would be forcibly removed from their homes. Others had concerns about trusting public officials to make fair decisions in choosing which neighborhoods in which to invest.
Noga said if only two families were left on a neighborhood block designed for 30, city officials argued it could be closed down. Residents were told they could receive compensation to move to another street or part of the city.
Eventually, asphalt and street lamps could be removed and the city could save money by not providing services such as trash pickup or snow removal in those areas.
"When he (Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams) mentioned that, you could see people nodding and saying, 'Well that would make sense,'" Noga said.
Reality hits home
In a west side neighborhood overlooking a business and industrial complex, 57-year-old JoAnn Tisler has seen the abandoned buildings near her home multiply in recent years.
Tisler has lived in Youngstown for 37 years and said the downturn in the steel industry was one of the worst things that happened in neighborhoods around the city. Although Tisler lives on a block with vacant parcels of land and homes showing their age with well-worn awnings and exteriors, she likes her home and neighbors and has no intention of moving. She said what keeps her awake is the vandals who continue to strip valuable metals and remove other property from an abandoned Baptist church next to her home.
Hunter Morrison, director of campus planning and community partnerships at Youngstown State University, said encouraging people to move out of certain areas is difficult for political and social reasons. He said the university conducted a study on repurposing areas on the city's east side. But the population of residents is scattered and it's difficult to consolidate areas when people are hesitant to accept an incentive to leave.
Morrison said the city has since changed its strategy and is focusing on implementing successful land acquisition models used in Flint, Mich., and Cleveland. In time, Morrison said the city also will acquire land in certain neighborhoods from willing property owners and restrict piecemeal residential building efforts.
"It does come down to how you handle Mrs. Smith," Morrison said, referring to how individuals view community development efforts.
Investing in development
Mayor Williams said officials realized that every neighborhood in the city couldn't be saved. However, he said the city would commit to using public dollars and leveraging private investment to help certain areas.
Morrison said when the city lost half its population, it also lost a significant percentage of its quality housing stock. One of the challenges in resizing is working down the significant inventory of homes either up for sale or demolition.
"Repurposing land and do it quickly and smart enough so that the places left behind aren't harboring criminal activity or aren't continuing to blight stable neighborhoods," Morrison said.
Noga said the development of programs like Lien Forward Ohio have been an important tool use to stabilize neighborhoods. Lien Forward Ohio is a partnership between the Mahoning County treasurer's office and the city to return vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent property to productive use.
Noga said the church has picked up about a dozen lots in nearby areas and used a group of a lots as a garden.
One spin-off from increased community organizing efforts was the creation of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. in 2009, said Phil Kidd, lead organizer with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.
The organization, which is not an agency of the city, decided it would target three neighborhoods in different parts of Youngstown and restore them to a healthy state. Picking a small amount of neighborhoods was done intentionally to achieve the greatest impact, Kidd said. The group offers homeowner incentive programs, uses county funds to restore vacant and foreclosed properties and does planning and research.
Wanted: New neighborhoods
Williams said neighborhood transformation doesn't happen overnight and the next phase of Youngstown 2010 will allow the city to continue building from its early successes. He said he knows there are critics of the city's approaches to development, but there is increased community engagement and the opportunity to sustain progress in the city.
City Councilwoman Janet Tarpley said cities such as Gary and Youngstown need significant community investment beyond knocking down abandoned buildings in order to full recover. In a place like Gary, she said officials should concentrate on providing financial and social development resources such as literacy programs in the area to improve conditions for individual families.
Once success is built in those areas, then those efforts can move outward.
"This is about self-improvement," said Tarpley, who also is director of the parent project for the Mahoning County Juvenile Court. "That's the key to changing all of this, which we haven't done."