If you want to gauge the success of Thursday night's unveiling of the comprehensive plan for the city of Youngstown's future, think December 2002 and chocolate.
In December 2002, about 1,000 people showed up at Stambaugh Auditorium and heard the architects of "Youngstown 2010 -- Sharing a better vision for tomorrow" acknowledge a stark reality: The city's population has declined to 80,000 which necessitates a new approach to such things as the revitalization of the central business district and neighborhoods, land use, and the development of quality of life assets. From Mayor George M. Mc-Kelvey to Youngstown State President David Sweet to the consultants, the message was the same: You, the people, will determine the vision for the city.
The participants left the auditorium that night with a renewed sense of community. But the question that was on the lips of many city officials had to do with commitment. Would residents stay focused and participate in the neighborhood forums? And would they be willing to brave another cold winter's night to attend the public unveiling of the plan in January 2005?
The 800 or so residents who participated in the 11 neighborhood sessions last year, and the 1,300 who were on hand Thursday night to see and hear what Youngstown can become put to rest doubts about the public's involvement.
And that brings us to second gauge of success. On any given day, faced with having to choose between hearing government types drone on about things esoteric and eating great chocolate, most people would go with their taste buds. But not those who gathered in Stambaugh Auditorium. They gave up the "For the Love of Chocolate Festival" held Thursday evening at the Holiday Inn Metroplex in Liberty Township to demonstrate their faith in the city.
It is this faith that the mayor, members of city council and the "Youngstown 2010" team have a responsibility to preserve. If the promises made are broken, if politics becomes the driving force, if special interest groups succeed in derailing the plan, residents who now care will walk away in anger and frustration. And Youngstown will suffer.
There was a symbolic signing of the plan by elected officials and others, but the true test of their commitment to deliver what city residents have said they want will come when it's time to act.
As Jay Williams, the city's Community Development Agency director, put it, "You spoke and we listened."
Here's what they heard: The people want a cleaner, greener and better planned and organized Youngstown.
Of those three demands, the first is the easiest to accomplish -- and the most important.
We are reminded of the 2002 governor's race in which Democrat Tim Hagan, a Cuyahoga County commissioner and Youngstown native, was challenging Republican Gov. Bob Taft.
In a meeting with The Vindicator editorial board, Hagan, whose brother, Robert, is a state senator, was in the midst of outlining his economic development proposal and the impact it would have on cities in decline when he made this compelling point: While there are things state government can and must do to help Youngstown, the appearance of the city is the responsibility of the city.
Hagan pointed to the shabby entry ways, the debris strewn thoroughfares and the griminess of some parts of the city as contributing to the negative impression visitors have of Youngstown.
We are also reminded of a letter that Tom Humphries, chief executive officer of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, wrote to Mayor McKelvey in which he urged government to do something about the entrances to the city. Humphries noted that first impressions do count, especially with individuals looking for investment opportunities.
And, we recall a letter that Michael Rowan wrote when he was chief executive officer of St. Elizabeth Medical Center.
Rowan, who had launched a multi-million-dollar neighborhood improvement project around the inner city hospital, argued that all the grandiose plans for the city would be for naught if the streets were dirty, vacant lots were garbage dumps and dilapidated buildings littered neighborhoods.
Youngstown residents obviously share the opinions expressed by Tim Hagan, Humphries and Rowan, because the "Youngstown 2010" plan talks about cleaning major thoroughfares and gateways, beautifying Madison Avenue Expressway in cooperation with the Ohio Department of Transportation, and removing blight, such as tearing down residential and commercial structures.
Indeed, the city is seeking a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would facilitate the accelerated citywide demolition program.
The presence of congressmen Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, and Ted Strickland of Lisbon, D-6th, at Thursday's unveiling, and a letter of support from U.S. Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, who as mayor of Cleveland was the driving force of that city's rebirth, are important because they give local officials a link with the federal government.
We would urge the mayor and council to meet with Ryan, Strickland, Voinovich and Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and identify projects that would require federal government participation.
From now on, the architects of "Youngstown 2010 -- Sharing a better vision for tomorrow" will be available to discuss the details of the plan with community organizations and citizens groups, and to elicit reaction.
We believe all segments of the city and adjoining suburban communities should take advantage of this opportunity.