DIANE MAKAR MURPHY A Commons goal: one neighborhood's renewal

Mahoning Commons isn't a large area. It includes a scattering of residences amid several businesses corralled by the Mahoning Avenue and Springs Commons bridges, and the Mahoning River and Route 680.
But as an example to the community, the Commons may be just large enough to make a difference.
Back in 1997, when Youngstown was celebrating its bicentennial, city leaders hoped to use the event to launch some lasting changes in Youngstown. The Legacy Project was charged with figuring out what those changes might be.
Goals: The project made plans to place a bust of city founder John Young in the city, to somehow reconnect the river to the people, and to demonstrate how community spirit and unity might affect a neighborhood in the historic district.
The last goal resulted in Mahoning Commons, so named by the people who live and own businesses there.
The actual area was selected by the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. "It supposedly included the place on the river where John Young landed," explained Suzanne Fleming, who was a facilitator with the Legacy Project as part of her Youngstown State University graduate internship.
A $25,000 grant to the Legacy Project, the only grant from which the Commons has benefited, got the experiment under way. Dollars were spent on new signs, promotional banners and the hiring of a marketing firm to determine how to inspire enthusiasm for the area from business.
Impact: Bit by bit, over the last few years, changes, some subtle, some more obvious, have been made within that single square mile. "I think it's been measurable," Fleming said. She now coordinates the Regional Leadership Taskforce at the Center for Human Services Development at YSU, but her involvement with the Commons has continued as a volunteer.
"One very positive byproduct of the designation was the creation of an ongoing neighborhood association," she said. The group has been around for four years now and has 40 members.
Neighborhood cleanups have improved the appearance of several yards in the Commons. New fa & ccedil;ades have brightened some businesses. Consistent paint-overs have nearly eliminated graffiti. Bulldozing and property acquisitions by businesses have improved the look and economics of the area.
One company that expanded its operations there is Pepsi. New business has even chosen to move into the Commons, sometimes at the prodding of its neighborhood association.
The association has used its dues to acquire lawn mowers and other equipment available to its members on loan. Rezoning is also being sought to encourage the growth of the artist community within the Commons. The old Ward Bread Co. is home and studio to many artists already.
Keeping watch: "There's a lot of education to what the community assets are and what's available. We watch what businesses are moving and doing," Fleming said. "Businesses in the Commons try to support other businesses in the Commons."
Fleming finds it encouraging that so many people keep attending association meetings and stay involved. Additionally, city support has increased. "Their resources are strapped, but we've gotten help in cleanups and in banner put-up and removal."
Don't get the wrong idea, though. Some abandoned houses in the Commons still await the bulldozer, some fields are still overgrown, and fa & ccedil;ades still need repair, but dramatic change may come later, in attitudes.
If one downtown neighborhood can, in essence, pull itself up by its bootstraps, then maybe another, and another, can.

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