An Akron-ism? Maybe, but flowers freshen up city but flowers dazzle a city

YOUNGSTOWN -- Picture unavoidable bursts of purple petunias, cater-cornered from one another near several Interstate 680 entrance and exit ramps.
Picture intersections radiating red cannas at Glenwood or Mahoning avenues, Albert or Hillman streets, McGuffey or Salt Springs roads.
Picture green bushes with pink and white cleomes decorating the corners at gateways to neighborhoods in Youngstown, Campbell or Struthers.
Picture that there really is a way to make a bold, colorful statement to counter the area's image as a mostly dreary urban landscape.
Now, take a 45-minute trip west and realize the vision. That's what you see from spring through fall in Akron, the center of a region not so different from this one.
There is hope.
Akron had a depressed downtown and neighborhoods in distress. Problems remain, certainly, but both look a whole lot better since Keep Akron Beautiful's Flowerscape program started nearly 20 years ago.
Such an approach is infectious and has the ability to transform Youngstown, said Paula Davis, executive director of the agency known as KAB.
"If it's successful one place, everybody will want to do it," she said. "You couldn't keep it from happening."
Flowerscape: Akron has two major programs that replace blight with beauty in very public areas. One focuses on downtown, the other on neighborhoods.
Flowerscape is made up of 24 locations containing 33 flower beds. The plots are on public property downtown or near high-traffic locations, such as the airport. The corners and traffic islands are professionally landscaped into "55 mph beds."
The idea is to create an unavoidable mix of bright flowers and landscaping. Even people driving fast on the highways and major roads can't miss them and shouldn't be anything but impressed.
"We expect you to catch the color and make you say 'wow,'" Davis said.
In 1982, a year after KAB formed, the agency raised $27,000 and planted 17,250 flowers. Today, KAB raises about $90,000 a year -- using city in-kind help but no public money -- to plant almost 50,000 flowers.
The money comes from foundations, businesses and individuals in donations as small as $5. Big businesses are asked for just $175.
Flowerscape has a couple full- and part-time staffers who coordinate the program with volunteers and people sentenced in court to community service.
The program is so popular that citizens pushed KAB to keep planting along a main artery when major construction threatened to put a big flowerbed on hold.
"People said it was the only good thing about the construction," Davis said.
Mahoning Valley: In Youngstown, the Downtown Revitalization Committee has run a similar program since 1998 on a smaller scale.
The volunteer group rounds up about 150 people for an annual cleanup. Included is planting colorful flowers around downtown. Streetscape 2001 will be from 8 a.m. to noon on June 2.
The group also spent about $50,000 last year replacing the worn, landscaped boxes that line sections of Boardman and Champion streets.
Davis has worked with the DRC in the past. She is talking with the group about another major project. The focus probably will be on beautifying one of the main arteries into downtown.
A huge impact on Youngstown's neighborhoods would be following Akron's Adopt-A-Site program.
Neighborhood groups: Hundreds of people of all races and income levels across Akron's neighborhoods -- typically five to 10 at each site -- band together to plant bushes, trees, flowers and plants each year.
There are more than 90 spots sprinkled around city neighborhoods.
The plots range from a few feet long to entire vacant lots. Volunteers come from block watches, church groups, service clubs, youth groups and elsewhere.
"It's just amazing how different they are," Davis said. "You'd be surprised at how many community groups will rise to the occasion if they get some help."
KAB helps neighborhood groups create the spot the first year. Then, the neighborhood volunteers must round up the help to maintain the area and raise about $100 a year for materials bought wholesale through KAB.
Most of the flowers are annuals, not perennials, because bright color is the key. That means replacing most of the flowers each year, plus four months of regular maintenance on the site.
"They're surprised how much work it takes. It's a huge commitment, but if you want to have a real impact it's the only way," Davis said.
Despite the effort required, she tells of many success stories.
There was the group of 75 neighbors who turned an old gas station into a landscaped lot. There was the illegal dumpsite turned into a childrens' garden. There were the community center members who turned graffiti into beauty in one summer.
"They knew their neighborhood. They knew what they wanted. Then they made it their problem," Davis said.
If Youngstown matched Akron in proportion, the city would have about 13 big flowerbeds around downtown and 36 more in the neighborhoods. That's about five neighborhood sites per city ward or nine sites on each of the four sides of town.
That also would mean generating about $30,000 for the downtown work each year and 200 to 350 people across the city donating their effort and raising about $3,500 or more annually.
Beautification Watch: KAB reaches into the neighborhoods even further via the Beautification Watch.
A group tours residential streets each summer and notes homes and businesses that have well-kept flowers, shrubs and trees, are free of weeds and litter, and stand out from other properties. Each address is sent a certificate recognizing the occupant's efforts.
In 2000 there were 2,114 residences and 186 businesses honored.
"It's a little thing, but everybody wants to be better than the guy next door," Davis said. "I can't tell you how big this is."
Keep Akron Beautiful is an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful Inc. The agency is known for its 1971 television commercial where a tear forms in the eye of a native American overlooking a littered highway.
There are several Keep America Beautiful-affiliated groups in Mahoning County.
One is called Keep The Mahoning Valley Beautiful, another called Keep Lake Milton Clean and Beautiful. Youngstown's Litter Control and Recycling office also is an affiliate.
Funding: They'll all need far more help, however, if they are ever to accomplish Akron's level of aesthetic improvement.
The county groups are funded with only about $400 in donations. The money pays for gloves and garbage bags for some of the 60 or so groups around the county that do one to three litter cleanups in their communities each year, said Timothy Berlekamp, director of Mahoning County's Recycling Division.
The city gets about $1,000 a year in donations. Much of it pays for garbage bags and other materials that the many neighborhood groups use to do cleanups, said Linda DeJoe, litter control director.
The lack of big public support or dollars, however, leaves all the Keep America Beautiful affiliates limited to regular cleanups.
Area recycling offices are more geared toward managing waste than beautification, so coordinating an Akron-like effort now would be hard, officials said. The offices focus on education and dispelling myths.
Misconceptions include the notion that littering is OK because it provides people with cleanup jobs and that motorists are responsible for a majority of trash. In fact, litter cleanup is mostly a volunteer effort and poorly maintained commercial trash bins are a significant source.
"It's changing attitudes," said Mary Gresh of the county recycling office.
One coordinated litter, recycling and beautification plan for the area would be a dream, Berlekamp said. He isn't sure how much money or how many people that would take.
Berlekamp agrees the area could use some striking visual improvement. He arrived here two years ago from the Tiffin area and was struck by something else.
"It's hits you as the old steel valley," he said.
Axiom: Many of the area's problems, he said, are rooted in the widely held axiom in the litter profession that "if it looks like trash it's going to be trashed."
Progress is being made, however, Berlekamp said.
Newly paved roads, recently built major new bridges, sheriff's deputies dedicated to policing illegal dumping in Youngstown and plans to create an environmental division within the city municipal court all bode well, he said.
Taking the next step would put the area on par with other rebounding places, he said.
"I see just as much potential. I'm excited about the Valley," Berlekamp said. "When you put all the pieces together ... to me, it's a dynamic place."

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