If first impressions count, then the first impression visitors have of Liberty Township comes from its main thoroughfare, Belmont Avenue. And that's not a good thing. While some properties along the north-south corridor are well maintained and reflect the community's vibrancy, there are too many that may be described as blighted.
Lots overgrown with grass and weeds, junk vehicles scattered around yards, dilapidated structures and a mish-mash of business signs and building facades reflect the kind of community deterioration that is common in poverty-ridden inner cities.
Liberty Township certainly isn't on the ropes, but as Administrator Patrick J. Ungaro well knows -- from his 14-year tenure as mayor of the city of Youngstown -- blight has a way of spreading unless it is dealt with aggressively.
As Ungaro puts it, the deterioration "has to be reversed" or else the community's economic development effort will suffer. First impressions do count, especially with potential investors. Quality of life is a main consideration, and those communities with good school systems, stable neighborhoods and well-planned commercial areas are more likely to attract businesses than those with failing schools, rundown neighborhoods and commercial centers with boarded up storefronts.
During his years as mayor, Ungaro spent a great deal of time developing programs to reverse the city's downward trend. He was somewhat successful in clean-up efforts, but was fiscally hamstrung when it came to tearing down uninhabitable homes and vacant buildings.
The challenge facing the administrator and trustees in Liberty isn't as great as the one confronting Youngstown officials, but it's a challenge nonetheless. On the other hand, Ungaro's assessment of why some parts of Liberty Township are rundown reflects a larger problem that government must address.
In a moment of refreshing candor, the former mayor explained that the area has deteriorated as people have moved into the township from Youngstown, bringing inner-city problems such as crime with them. And as with the city, crime is a major cause of population and business flight.
For many years, this newspaper has argued that crime must be addressed as a regional issue because criminals aren't deterred by boundary lines. As Youngstown's economy has worsened and working families, especially those with school-age children, have fled to the suburbs, criminals have widened their targets. Thus, the suburbs surrounding the city are being hit with greater regularity.
Ungaro understands what crime can do to a community's psyche, which is why he is willing to talk openly about the challenge confronting Liberty. Given his deep roots in Youngstown, the administrator should begin a dialogue with Mayor George M. McKelvey as to how the two governments can strengthen their law enforcement ties.