As downtown rebirth continues, activists lobby for neighborhoods


By DAVID SKOLNICK

skolnick@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

While city officials get high marks for revitalizing downtown, there is plenty of room for improvement to Youngstown’s neighborhoods, community activists and organizers say.

The Youngstown 2010 plan, which includes a detailed framework for improving the city, looks great on paper, but more of its proposals need to be implemented, they say.

The Rev. Ed Noga of St. Patrick’s Church on the city’s South Side, a longtime community activist involved in the Youngs-town 2010 plan, said work needs to be done on enforcement of the housing code and landlord registration.

Until there is a focus on those efforts, the city will continue to see its housing stock deteriorate, he said.

“When we don’t hold landlords accountable, we end up with more houses in need of being brought up to code,” he said. “I wish we were more aggressive. The lack of enforcement means we need to demolish more houses.”

The city recently hired a consultant to develop its landlord-registration program that is expected to be implemented either late this year or early 2011.

Father Noga has high praise for the revitalization of downtown, which includes restaurants and bars, well-attended events at the Covelli Centre, the demolition of dilapidated buildings as well as the creation of high-tech and government jobs.

All of that has brought thousands of people to a downtown that was virtually empty a decade ago, he said.

“What’s happening is just short of miraculous,” Father Noga said. “What was thought to be dead has been revived. It shows it can be done in the neighborhoods.”

Abdul Harris, a tutor at Williamson Elementary School and a resident of the city’s lower East Side, said city officials are too focused on downtown and have neglected the neighborhoods.

“Nothing gets done in the neighborhoods,” said Harris, an outspoken critic of the city administration. “The city’s leaders lead us into nothing. All I see is further deterioration of the city except the downtown.”

Crime is so bad that “you can’t go to church without being killed,” Harris said.

He was referring to the Jan. 23 murder of Angeline Fimognari, an 80-year-old St. Dominic Church parishioner, in the church’s parking lot.

“It’s like anarchy is running the city,” he said.

If Youngstown is to thrive, it will be because of its people, Harris said.

“There is still some good in the city,” he said. “There are people who believe in the strength of the neighborhoods. I see some good in the city, but the leaders need to listen to us.”

If they did listen, they’d hear residents saying there needs to be more police officers in the neighborhoods, and the city needs to do a better job maintaining its roads, Harris said.

Kirk Noden, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, said the city needs to be more “ambitious” in implementing the 2010 plan in the neighborhoods by actively encouraging community organizing and collaboration.

Strong leadership in government, the school system and the business community is needed to work with citizens and community organizations to transform Youngstown, he said.

Progress has been made, but more is needed if the city is going to improve, Noden said.

Also, Youngstown officials need to work with their counterparts in other Mahoning Valley communities, he said.

Youngstown Council President Charles Sammarone said a city succeeds or fails based on its finances. Youngstown is currently trying to fill a $2.5 million hole in its 2010 general-fund budget.

“The 2010 plan emphasized demolitions in the neighborhoods because that’s what people wanted,” he said. “We were moving good with demolitions, but because of finances, we’ve had to step back.”

The city has demolished 2,000 structures since 2006.

Despite Youngstown’s financial problems, Sammarone pointed to the success of a number of major economic-development projects: a $650 million expansion project at V&M Star, and businesses moving into the city-owned 20 Federal Place and the Tech Block.

“It’s important what we’ve done in the past few years, but more important is what we do in the future and how we invest in the future to bring businesses here,” he said. “Could we be doing better? Yes, we could do better. I’m very optimistic about the city’s future.”

Tom Humphries, president of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, is also optimistic about Youngstown’s future.

“The city is heading in the right direction,” he said. “I’m very proud of what people have done to invest in Youngstown. There has been so much good done. There has been a significant change in downtown. Without a plan, we wouldn’t have gotten here. There’s a lot of positive going on. I believe we’ll see even more.”

Humphries pointed to several accomplishments made in the past year including the V&M Star expansion announcement, tying Youngstown State University to the downtown, the opening of downtown condominiums and a financial improvement at the Covelli Centre.

Joel Ratner, president of the Raymond John Wean Foundation, said Youngstown 2010’s biggest accomplishment was changing the mind-set of people that Youngstown has a future.

“We’re a shrinking city but not a declining city,” said Ratner, whose foundation has invested millions of dollars to revitalize Youngstown and Warren.

“Once you change the mind-set, we can change anything,” he added. “Changing the mentality is the crowning achievement on 2010. The idea of engagement is the key legacy of 2010.”

Ratner said other achievements — most notably the improvements to the downtown — shouldn’t be dismissed.

“But we still have a lot of work to do in our neighborhoods,” he said. “The plan is being implemented in waves, in stages. It probably wasn’t realistic to believe it would all get done by 2010. But we are making real progress and real improvements. It will take time, but we’re on our way.”

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