YOUNGSTOWN CIC, city continue power struggle
There is agreement on how to deal with empty downtown buildings, but not over which agency should do it.
By ROGER G. SMITH
CITY HALL REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Each can point to successes. Each also can point to the other's failures.
The future of who is in charge of downtown redevelopment falls somewhere within that debate.
Should city council keep the Youngstown Central Area Community Improvement Corp. as the city's designated downtown agency? Or, should council members transfer that responsibility to the city economic development office?
The issue has been talked about quietly for a couple of years but now is raised officially by two council members. John R. Swierz, D-7th, and Ron Sefcik, D-4th, are sponsoring legislation to make the change. They say CIC hasn't been effective and the city development office should handle downtown buildings.
The issue dates to 1988, when council created the CIC for both political and practical reasons.
Since then, the agency has been involved with numerous downtown projects.
Projects range from big -- building and managing the $8 million, four-story George V. Voinovich Government Center, to small -- putting roofs on dilapidated but salvageable buildings.
Agency's view: Critics haven't, and probably never will, give the CIC credit for its accomplishments, said G. Richard Pavlock, CIC president. He was just elected to the top spot but has been on the CIC board for most of the past decade.
The agency's successes are because of a couple things, he said. Diversity and skill on the 24-member board is one reason.
Ten members are city officials or appointees; the 14 others are private business people with varying backgrounds. The mix of public and private-sector members and their differing talents and views create a group of top-notch advisers, Pavlock said.
"If we had to pay for them, I don't think we could. It would cost a fortune. That's an expensive table," he said. "It's a great makeup. It makes a lot of sense. The blend makes it happen."
Board membership has remained stable over the years, as has CIC's management by the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce. CIC's relationship with the chamber is another factor in success, Pavlock said. The chamber has a contract to provide agency staff and expertise.
CIC executive directors have turned over regularly. The chamber, however, has provided high-level financial, engineering and administrative help over the years at the direction of Reid Dulberger, the chamber's executive vice president, Pavlock said.
The mix of city funding, a public-private board and chamber management remains a good idea today, he said.
Nonetheless, change is proposed because of what the agency hasn't accomplished: filling the vacant and boarded up buildings on the west end.
No market: The reason isn't complicated, Pavlock said. There hasn't been a market for the buildings since the city put the CIC in charge almost a decade ago.
CIC did what it could with the city money it had to keep the buildings ready for reuse, but the market hasn't materialized, he said.
A lack of money factors into more recent stagnation. Consensus has developed within CIC that many of those buildings must be demolished and the cleared land offered to developers.
The city isn't in position, however, to spend millions of dollars knocking down those buildings. So, the agency's job now is to be ready for whenever any funding becomes available, Pavlock said.
"Our only choice is to make sure everyone is on the same page," he said.
The common denominator between CIC and the city economic development office is that each agrees most of the empty buildings should be leveled.
"That has to be done," said Jeffrey L. Chagnot, city development director. "You can't attract investment in the present environment."
How to accomplish that is where they differ.
The city's two top business development people -- David Bozanich, deputy city finance director, and Chagnot -- say they will play whatever downtown role Mayor George M. McKelvey wants.
If asked to handle downtown, the pair said they would apply the same strategies used to successfully develop the city's industrial parks.
Simplicity is key.
City's view: The city office handles all the red tape so companies don't have to expend much effort establishing or expanding a business in Youngstown. The office handles demolition, environmental, property ownership and utility issues. All city financial incentives, from tax abatements to loans and grants, go through the office.
The city office is close with city council and the board of control. That's why deals starting in the city office are approved more quickly than projects starting elsewhere, such as the CIC, and then come to the city, Bozanich said.
The city office gets calls every day about downtown properties but refers them to CIC, he and Chagnot said. "Right away that creates a swirling dervish" of bureaucracy, Chagnot said.
Once a potential tenant works through CIC to lease a building, a company faces coming through the city for the financial incentives. Most never bother with the whole process, they say.
"Money goes where it's welcome. Obviously, that has not happened ... in the central business district," Bozanich said. "We have the ability to put a deal together that day. We're not creating additional levels of bureaucracy that cause money to be unwelcome."
CIC has a well-meaning board, but the city can make investing in a downtown building easier than the agency, he said.
The city would use the same sources that fund industrial parks -- government grants, loans and nontax city revenues -- to raise money for downtown demolition. Bozanich and Chagnot aren't sure how much they would need. One person would be needed to administer downtown projects, they said.
Pavlock, however, doesn't accept the notion that CIC interferes with progress or that the city can be more efficient.
Track records: He acknowledges the city's successful industrial park developments. The city's track record with the downtown properties it controls, however, doesn't match the CIC, he said.
Pavlock points to the city's past and present troubles finding stable tenants for the old Hair Program building at Phelps Street and Federal Plaza, the B & amp;O Station, the Wick building and the city hall annex.
CIC projects, such as renovating the old Elks building into the Morley Center for the Arts, the Draught House and Plaza Optical all have survived, he said.
If noncity money were readily available for downtown, CIC would have tapped it, Pavlock said. CIC's newly hired director has skills in obtaining funding and that will be a renewed focus, he said.
If money has been available for downtown, Pavlock questions why the city hasn't tapped into it already.
CIC, through its process and policy of lease-to-buy deals, is a check and balance against weak projects, he said. That setup avoids the city having to buy buildings back from a developer if a project fails. Any legitimate deal passes through the system without major problems, he said.
"Why spend time on a project doomed to fail?" Pavlock asked.
Most of all, Pavlock questions the instability that has plagued downtown redevelopment for so many years. City leaders need to settle on an approach, rather than continually questioning it, he said.
"We are the city. We are they, and they are we," Pavlock said of the CIC. "It's like brothers and sisters fighting. I don't think this helps us."