By Bertram de Souza
“We know that our success as a nation depends on the success of communities just like this one. We know that the battle for America’s future will be fought and won not just in the big cities, not just on the coasts, but in towns like Elkhart and Pittsburgh; Warren and Youngstown.”
So intoned President Barack Obama on Sept. 15 when he visited the Mahoning Valley to tout the Chevrolet Cruze that will be rolling off the assembly line later this year in General Motors Co.’s Lordstown assembly plant.
The president had a lot to say about regions like the Valley that have not shared in the nation’s wealth during good economic times, and have been hit harder than most during the downturns, like the current recession.
His speech to the Lordstown auto workers, the region’s elected officials and community leaders could be summed up thus: You have a friend in the White House.
Four months after the president’s visit, the administration has demonstrated that words and deeds aren’t linked when it comes to this region.
The Neighborhood Stabilization Program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is one of the president’s main tools for helping economically distressed communities recover, redevelop and create jobs.
So, it was not unreasonable for Youngstown, Warren and the seven other communities that formed a collaborative to believe their application for $32.4 million would be approved without much trouble. After all, HUD had $2 billion to dole out in the latest round of funding and what the communities in the Valley were seeking was a pittance.
In 2008, with a Republican, George W. Bush, in the White House, Youngstown received $2.7 million from HUD. There was supplemental funding through state government that resulted in Warren receiving $1.5 million, while Mahoning and Trumbull counties got $2.9 million and $2.1 million, respectively. Columbiana and Carroll counties received $1.5 million each.
From a purely partisan political standpoint, this predominantly Democratic region had every expectation that with a Democrat, Obama, in the White House and a Democrat, Ted Strickland, in the governor’s office, federal and state grants would flow into the tri-county area.
But as the decision by HUD not to funnel any Neighborhood Stabilization Program money to the Valley shows, the Democratic administration in Washington has a blind spot when it comes to rewarding political loyalty.
To be clear, the Youngstown-led collaborative was not asking for a favor, nor was it seeking to bypass the formal application procedure. The nine communities put together a proposal that was so compelling that the Brookings Institution gave it high marks.
And yet, the Obama administration told Youngstown, Warren, Niles, Girard, Campbell, Struthers, Lowellville, McDonald and Newton Falls that their economic plight did not rise to the level of need that the stabilization program is designed to meet.
Officials of those communities, local legislators and Congressman Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, are rightfully angry at the administration and deserve straight answers.
But rather than going to Washington to find out why the application was rejected, it would be instructive to bring HUD officials to the Valley and have them visit the neighborhoods that are so desperately in need of being revitalized.
The federal bureaucrats who decided that the Valley can do without the government’s assistance should have to meet with residents. Congressman Ryan, as a member of the committee that controls the purse strings of departments such as Housing and Urban Development, must not take no for an answer to his invitation.
Given that the state of Ohio will receive $25.4 million, while cities, counties and nonprofit organizations will share $150 million, the Youngstown collaborative should also seek the involvement of Gov. Strickland, who is running for re-election this year.
The stars aren’t aligned for Democrats in 2010. They cannot afford to anger their loyalists — in the Mahoning Valley.