By DAVID SKOLNICK
VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN — Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards praised Youngstown as a “national model” of a former heavy industrial city successfully reinventing itself as a high-tech business location.
Edwards, of North Carolina, a former U.S. senator, met for about 20 minutes Tuesday with local business, economic development and political leaders at the Youngstown Business Incubator on West Federal Street.
After hearing about the Youngstown 2010 development plan and the success of the incubator, Edwards said other Rust Belt cities should follow Youngstown’s example.
While the city has seen economic growth in the past decade, and a plan is in the works to significantly expand the incubator, Youngstown still has the highest unemployment rate — 7.6 percent — of any Ohio city of at least 50,000 people.
Edwards called Youngstown 2010, a plan that promotes organized shrinkage of the city, “visionary.” The plan has received national and international press.
The city demolished 400 abandoned structures, mostly houses in residential neighborhoods, last year and plans to equal that number this year to reduce blight and places for criminal activity. In previous years, the city demolished less than half that amount.
Focusing on developing high-tech jobs in downtown “is an example of what’s possible in communities that have lost jobs and struggled,” Edwards said.
Hunter Morrison, the head of Youngstown State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies, said the city is a “poster child” for what other Great Lakes urban cities need to do.
Edwards, the former 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate, made two stops Tuesday in Youngstown as part of his three-day, 12-city “Road to One America” tour. Edwards also visited Cleveland and Pittsburgh on Tuesday, the second day of his tour.
Before his meeting at the incubator, Edwards spent about 25 minutes with four women, learning about their efforts to rebuild their lives. The four credited their road to recovery to Beatitude House, a Lora Avenue shelter for homeless women where Edwards made his initial stop in Youngstown.
The facility provides housing, as well as job and life skills to homeless women.
“You may be homeless but you’re not hopeless,” said Felecia Williams of Youngstown, who moved into her own home in August 2006 after two years at the Beatitude House. “They helped me build skills to become employable.”
Williams is working as a teacher’s aide at a day-care facility and is attending YSU, working toward earning a nursing degree.
Brenda Gray of Campbell, who lived at the house until mid-2005, told Edwards that the facility’s staff helped her manage her debt and get her life back in order. She now owns a home in Campbell and expects to graduate from YSU in December with a degree in social work. Gray is also working at the Help Hotline Crisis Center.
“Without Beatitude House in my life, I don’t know where I’d be today,” she said.
Edwards told the women that they should be proud of their accomplishments.
“I meet women like you all over the country, and I’ve never stopped being inspired,” he told them.
During both appearances, Edwards did much more listening than talking.
The tour’s main goal, Edwards said, is to raise awareness of poverty. One option is to strengthen cities through economic improvements.
Edwards said his plan would end poverty, which affects 37 million Americans, in 30 years.
The plan calls for affordable, quality health care, raising the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2012, protecting workers’ rights to organize and making college more affordable.
Edwards said his plans would also benefit middle-class families.
“The two Americas aren’t the rich and the poor,” he said. “It’s the rich and everyone else.”
Edwards trails U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama of Illinois in money raised among the Democratic presidential candidates. But Edwards isn’t concerned.
“It’s not a fund-raising contest,” he said. “There is a question of who is prepared to be the next president of the United States, who is addressing in very specific terms the issues that face this country.”
Americans are looking for a leader as their president, said Edwards, who added he is that person.