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The challenge of redesigning Youngstown

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Related story:As downtown rebirth continues, activists lobby for neighborhoods.



This is supposed to be a big year for the city and its mayor.

Mayor Jay Williams was one of the main architects of the city’s Youngstown 2010 plan.

Here we are in Youngstown in the year 2010.

The plan, unveiled Dec. 16, 2002, has been profiled in numerous publications worldwide as a model for what an industrial city with a declining population should do.

The plan’s creators describes it as the “guiding document that sets out a framework for understanding and addressing the issues” facing the city.

Williams’ close association to the plan was a key factor in his 2005 mayoral election.

So how has the first 21⁄2 months of this important year been for Youngstown?

“It’s been my most challenging period of time,” Williams said. “The first two-plus months have brought the full range of emotions that one could expect serving two full terms [eight years] sitting in this office. This has been enough to shave a few years off your life if you look at it one way and enough to add a few years if you look at it from another way from the perspective of the mayor.”

Among the low points:

Homicides are up in 2010 compared to previous years. Angeline Fimognari, an 80-year-old parishioner at St. Dominic Church on the South Side, was murdered in the church’s parking lot after leaving an early morning Mass on Jan. 23. Her death attracted national media attention.

The Jan. 14 rejection of a $32.4 million proposal for federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds that would have been used to demolish and rehabilitate houses in nine Mahoning Valley communities.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rejected the plan, spearheaded by Youngstown, because the city’s application “failed to show [it] had the capacity and ability to carry out the proposal.”

An armed robbery of $80,000 from the food and beverage vendor at the city-owned Covelli Centre in broad daylight Jan. 26.

State Rep. Robert F. Hagan assaulted at a downtown restaurant and bar Jan. 6.

Financial woes leaves the city looking at a $2.5 million general fund deficit for the year.

The city won’t fund recreational programs and won’t provide money to operate its golf course and two pools in budget-cutting measures. The city is looking for outside vendors to take over those responsibilities. Also, deeper cuts need to be made to balance the budget.

The uncertainty of Forum Health in the city. The health organization employs about 1,400 at Forum Health Northside Medical Center.

There were also “exhilarating highs” so far this year, Williams said:

V&M Star announcing Feb. 15 it will build a $650 million expansion project that will employ 400 construction workers. The company expects to hire 350 people when the project is finished. It is the largest economic investment in the city’s history.

“That announcement defines what 2010 was all about: regional collaboration and Youngstown in the regional and global economic markets,” Williams said. “It sends a message to the world that this is a place to do business.”

VXI Global Solutions adding 200 jobs by May to its call center in the city-owned 20 Federal Place. The company already employs 450 workers at the downtown building.

Revere Data relocated a research center from New Delhi, India, to the recently renovated Semple Building on West Federal Street, part of the city’s Tech Block.

A financial improvement at the Covelli Centre, which is drawing large crowds for events at the facility.

“We’re a city of extremes,” Williams said.

While Williams said “2010 was always intended to be a journey and not a destination,” the year has importance.

“We wanted to redefine what this city could do” by 2010, he said. “We decided that we’d use this vision and plan to operate the city.”

Youngstown 2010 included plans for each of the city’s 31 neighborhoods. Progress in improving many of those neighborhoods is either slow going or nonexistent.

“The neighborhoods didn’t deteriorate over the course of five or 10 years,” Williams said. “This is a 20-year, 30-year decline in some of these neighborhoods so if the transformation is 10 or 15 or 20 years, we’re still ahead of the game. It’s always easier to tear down and decline than it is to build back up.”

There are more active neighborhood groups now than there have been in years in the city, Williams said.

Also, the demolition of more than 2,000 vacant structures, most of them residential houses, helps transform neighborhoods, he said.

Williams points to the Idora Park area, the Wick Park neighborhood, and to several communities on the city’s West Side as areas making improvements with active citizen participation.

As for a few of the low points during the first 21⁄2 months of the year, Williams said some good came out of them.

The Fimognari murder “was a national story that had the potential to really define this city,” he said. “However, the response from the parishioners is more of the defining element than the heinous crime itself. That doesn’t diminish the anguish and pain of the murder of Angeline Fimognari and the absolute anger at the suspect to commit that depravity. But how do you derive more inspiration than to hear those parishioners and see them remain steadfast in their determination” to continue worshipping at the church.

Also the Hagan assault could have hurt the reputation of downtown, Williams said.

But Hagan forgave the man who hit him at the Lemon Grove Cafe and Lounge as well as insist that the incident was isolated and downtown is a safe place. That diffused that situation, the mayor said.

“I think people will look at it in its context,” Williams said. “When I go through downtown I see more diversity than I’ve seen in the life that I’ve spent here.”

There’s still a lot to learn and plenty of room for improvement, but Williams said he’s optimistic that the city will progress in this all-important year and into the future.

Williams stresses that for Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley to advance in the future there must be collaboration.

The mayor’s goals for this year include:

Assisting organizations that are working to improve various neighborhoods throughout the city.

Obtaining major “investments from the federal government or national foundations” to help Youngstown tackle the issues of vacant property and economic development.

Focusing on regionalization efforts to improve the Valley’s economy.

As for the mayor’s goals for this decade, he has high ones.

“I want 2010 to 2020 to be remembers as Youngstown’s renaissance,” he said.

That would include:

Creating strong neighborhoods.

Developing a diverse economic base.

A strong school system that provides an education as strong as the best urban school districts.

A reduction in crime.

“We’ve made some inroads in the past decade,” Williams said. “I’d like to see them finalized. I believe everything I talked about is achievable over the next 10 years.”

YOUNGSTOWN 2010 goals

The Youngstown 2010 plan, approved by city council in 2003, described a vision for the city’s future. Here are some of the key elements of the plan and the city’s progress.

Viable neighborhoods. The city, along with community planning organizations and neighborhood associations, is working to improve certain parts of Youngstown. The city has demolished more than 2,000 properties, most of them vacant houses in neighborhoods, but more work needs to be done to improve the various sections of Youngstown.

A vibrant downtown. The downtown has seen major improvements in the number of businesses, restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.

Reusing old industrial brownfield sites for new green businesses. The city has attracted several businesses to its industrial and business parks, but most of them wouldn’t be considered green businesses.

Improve the city’s education system. The city has the worst public school system in Ohio, according to the state Department of Education report card.

Define Youngstown’s role in the new regional economy with a focus on the health care sector, industrial clusters and the arts community. The city could lose 1,400 health care workers if the bankrupt Forum Health closes the Northside Health Center, the city has seen a number of its industrial businesses expand, most notably the recent announcement by V&M Star that it’s planning a $650 million expansion. The arts community has grown with an expansion of the Butler Institute of American Art, the opening of the $45 million city-owned Covelli Centre in 2005, and downtown bars and restaurants focusing on music, entertainment and the arts.

Connecting downtown to Youngstown State University. The city is extending Hazel Street to connect downtown to YSU’s Williamson College of Business Administration, which is under construction.

Sources: Youngstown 2010 plan, Vindicator files