YOUNGSTOWN Visual impressions are vital for business
The city and regional chamber have differing philosophies on how to improve the city's look.
By ROGER G. SMITH
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Interstate 71 into Columbus is a good setting if your job involves escorting business executives into town and persuading them to invest money and bring jobs.
The route features trimmed grass, litter-free roadsides and decorative shrubs and flowers.
"A first impression is a lasting impression. Visual impression is really important," said Tom Humphries, president of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. "It adds value to one's impression. When you drive into that community, you think somebody cares. They care enough to show you they care."
His job here is more difficult.
Humphries finds no good way to hide the city's deterioration from out-of-town guests. It starts with the main arteries into Youngstown: Interstate 680 from the west, Interstate 80 and Belmont Avenue from the north; Market Street, South Avenue and I-680 to the south. All are problematic, not to mention how parts of downtown and many neighborhoods look.
"It's tough. I'll leave it at that," he said.
Negative impressions: Initial impressions that business leaders form about the area temper the assets. Negative appearance has been an issue more than once when companies looking to locate here come calling, Humphries said.
"You want to eliminate any possible reservation whether or not this is a great place to live and work," he said. "Those are strong impressions that we leave with people."
Humphries has asked chamber members to take a closer look at their own businesses. If there is trash, pick it up. If there are weeds, pull them. If the windows are dirty, clean them. If the curb is worn, replace it.
"We have to do our part, too. We have to take responsibility," Humphries said.
He has gone further, however.
In late May, after The Vindicator's series on blight, Humphries and Mayor George M. McKelvey traded letters on the topic.
The city's aesthetics have been a continuing concern for chamber members and the issue needs urgent attention, Humphries told the mayor. Negative perceptions drive out existing businesses and make it hard to draw new companies.
Asking for plan: He asked the mayor and council to outline any plans to improve Youngstown's appearance. The chamber would communicate that plan -- the steps, the time period and the budget -- to the business community.
Humphries was looking for a big plan.
"I hope there's one. I'm really trying to seek out the one plan," he said.
McKelvey, however, referred Humphries to individual council members.
They are displaying energy and resolve in addressing blight with "countless ward improvement initiatives," the mayor said. A majority of the city's spending is directed at eliminating blight, he said.
"There's never enough, but we're committed to continuing the fight," McKelvey said.
Three councilmen who responded to the question point with pride to special efforts.
For example, there are sweeps by housing inspectors targeting problem areas and dozens of trash cleanups done by neighborhood groups and jailed inmates.
There are other efforts particular to a ward, such as a bridge painted here, a house demolished there or grass cutting concentrated to improve a section of town.
Corridors, which businesses often complain about, are a priority, council members said.
"I'm constantly patrolling my [business] area," said John R. Swierz, D-7th.
Reopening Federal Street to traffic, with construction possibly starting in the spring, will make a big difference downtown, said Artis Gillam Sr., D-1st.
Unique problems: Each of the city's seven wards have unique problems, so a system of seven approaches is reasonable, councilmen said.
For example, the 2nd Ward has 3,000 empty lots to be mowed while others might have a couple hundred, said Rufus Hudson, D-2nd.
"We have one effort. We're each just doing it in a different way," Gillam said.
McKelvey also asked that the chamber lead a business-government partnership similar to an Akron beautification program outlined in the Vindicator series.
Council members agree that the chamber should take a more active role in the community's appearance.
The chamber is embarking on an $8.6 million plan called Jobs for Our Valley that focuses on education, image and growth. The local, regional and national image and marketing campaign makes up $3 million of the plan.
McKelvey would prefer the chamber work with the city and spend the money on one or more projects that would improve Youngstown's look, rather than on public relations.
Fixing the problem is more productive than just emphasizing the assets, he said. Without that, the problems remain once the public relations efforts fade.
"It doesn't make sense to me," McKelvey said. "There's a disconnect there. There's something wrong."
Chamber's role: Humphries has a different philosophy: He views the chamber's role as marketing the region to a wide audience.
Once the chamber lures a business into considering the Mahoning Valley, it's up to other area leaders to provide executives a positive experience -- including a pleasant visual atmosphere.
"Our job is to go out and get business people to come into this community. We need the communities to do their part," Humphries said. "We think it's the communities, each one of them ... we want them to be ready for these people to come into their communities."