Jay Williams contemplates city's future Neighborhood conditions serve as urgent challenge
He remains intent on seeing the 2010 redevelopment plan reach fruition.
By DAVID SKOLNICK
CITY HALL REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mayor-elect Jay Williams realizes he is facing major challenges when his term begins Sunday.
The top priorities include:
* Addressing the city's economic base by working to attract, retain and expand businesses.
* Reducing the crime rate.
* Making improvements and adjustments to neighborhoods.
The last priority will prove to be the toughest, he said, but it's one he wants to tackle head-on. Williams was one of the architects of the city's 2010 redevelopment program that offers options for Youngstown's many neighborhoods.
Some neighborhoods are fine as is; some need assistance, and others are beyond repair, he said.
Williams quit his job in April as the city's Community Development Agency director to run for mayor. Federal law prohibited Williams from running while holding a civil service position.
One of his main responsibilities during his 41/2 years as CDA director was to work with city council and community organizations to determine how to spend the Community Development Block Grant money given to Youngstown annually by the federal government.
On more than one occasion, Williams said, the city chose to spend thousands of dollars to improve a relatively worthless house on a street with mostly vacant properties. The result was the value of the improved home didn't increase, he said.
"We'd give $40,000 to improve a house worth $8,000 and when we were done, it was still worth $8,000," he said.
Instead, the city should offer incentives to people living in those areas to relocate to neighborhoods that are or can be improved, Williams said.
"Of course, we have to be sensitive to those we ask to relocate, but we need to take care of the city's needs as a whole," he said. "Every side of town has strong, viable areas and areas with challenges. But the city can't do this alone. We need to establish partnerships with private investors."
Williams, 34, is the first black person elected Youngstown mayor and the first independent candidate to capture the seat in about 80 years.
Since his impressive Nov. 8 general election victory, Williams has spent his days preparing to run the city.
"Right after the election, I found it tough to balance all the phone calls and be accessible to people and get my Cabinet in place," he said. "It's been hectic the past two to three weeks, but I feel a lot more productive during that time than before."
Williams expects this week to announce most or all of his Cabinet selections. A national search yielded about 60 applications for seven advertised Cabinet positions, he said.
"I've got at least one excellent candidate for each position, and two or three for most of them," Williams said. "I've got to offer the job, and the candidates have to accept the jobs, but I will have a strong Cabinet."
Williams said some people have misconceptions about him.
Won't play favorites
Williams is a religious man who received the support of more than 100 local members of the clergy during his election victory. But Williams said he is not beholden to the wishes of local ministers and will not take marching orders from them.
"I'd challenge anyone to show that I've made a policy based on what members of the clergy recommend," he said. "It makes for good fodder and drama, but it's not true."
Williams also hears that his Cabinet will be filled with close friends or parishioners at Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church, his church.
Williams selected Jason Whitehead, an associate minister at the church and the outgoing head of the city's downtown redevelopment agency, to a post that is essentially the mayor's chief of staff.
But Williams said Whitehead is highly qualified for the job and is someone he can trust.
Most of his major campaign contributors are Republicans, but Williams said he remains a registered Democrat and those who gave him money won't have special access to him as mayor.
Williams admits he was "almost embarrassed" and "almost speechless" when Mahoning County Republican Chairman Clarence Smith gave him a $20,000 check for his campaign.
But Smith told him he was interested only in good government, and Williams wouldn't have accepted the money if it came with any strings.
Even though Democrats accuse Williams of being a closet Republican, pointing to his major campaign donors, the mayor-elect said he is eager to work with officials from both parties.
"If the relationship [with local Democrats] deteriorates, it won't be because of me," he said.
Williams said his independent status will help the city because candidates from both major parties for governor in the 2006 election and president in 2008 will be interested in speaking to him.
Williams said he's already had conversations with three 2006 gubernatorial candidates.
While he faces challenges, Williams is thrilled that he'll be Youngstown's mayor in a few days.
It's a job Williams never envisioned having when he was working as a bank teller at the former First Federal of Youngstown and attending Youngstown State University in 1990.
His career path
Williams moved up the ranks at the bank through its management training program, and after a year there, he was working full time at the bank in the morning and afternoon, and handling a full-time course load at YSU.
Williams received his bachelor of science degree in business administration-finance in 1994, and in 1995, he left the bank to take a bank examiner job at the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland.
During his nearly two years there, Williams served in a position equivalent to an auditor and examined the financial books of banks in Ohio, western Pennsylvania and northern Kentucky.
In April 1997, he took a junior underwriter job at First Place Bank in Howland, and in a little more than a year, he was an assistant vice president and vice president.
Williams liked the bank jobs but was looking for something different. He found it in mid-2000 while reading the classified ads in the newspaper. Youngstown was holding a written test for CDA director.
First Place had just gone public, and as an executive Williams received stock options and awards.
Williams said he received $40,000 from the bank in stock awards but gave up more than $200,000 in future awards -- with the stock doing well since his departure, it's worth about $400,000 -- to become the city's CDA director. The director job pays about $66,000 annually.
"I never chased money," Williams said.
Williams and McKelvey meet
Williams did well on the test and was hired by Mayor George M. Mc-Kelvey after three or four interviews.
Williams had never met McKelvey before the interviews.
During one interview, Williams gave McKelvey the names of five people for personal references. The mayor asked for 15 more, and Williams complied.
"It wasn't a casual process; it was very thorough," Williams recalls.
While Williams will appoint his successor as CDA director shortly from the civil service test list, the same way he got the job, he said that post, and the job of economic development director, shouldn't be based on a written test.
Williams said he would seek to have a city charter review committee put on a ballot referendums to give the mayor power to appoint people to those two positions.
During 2004, Williams hosted numerous forums getting public input on the city's 2010 redevelopment plan.
"That process inspired me to run for mayor," he said. "Some people say I used it as a platform to run for mayor. That wasn't the case. I was concerned that someone would be elected and not use the plan. I was protecting the plan and the community that put it together."