By Robert Guttersohn
For the longest time, the growing racial and ethnic diversity here was a taboo subject.
In the past, it was the large plazas and quiet neighborhoods that drew residents. Even the cover of the township’s current marketing brochure bears a picture of horses in a field enclosed by a wooden fence.
But township Administrator Pat Ungaro sees that changing. Rather than the serene picture on the brochure, Ungaro envisions a shot of Belmont Avenue — the township’s main commercial strip — and its diverse restaurants and grocery stores as the focus.
In the 1990s, Belmont Avenue lost the plazas. But in the last year, the Belmont strip has been refilled with a diverse array of locally owned eateries such Fiesta Tapatia and Monteen’s Southern Cuisine.
“We are a melting pot,” Ungaro said of the township.
And it’s the melting pot, or the growing diversity in the township, that Ungaro wants to market in hopes of drawing more residents to live here.
“Some might feel more comfortable coming here,” he said. “You could live in Liberty, get on the freeway and go to work.”
Stan Nudell, township trustee and commercial Realtor, said there are people living in Liberty who work in either Cleveland or Pittsburgh because the cost of living is cheaper in the Mahoning Valley.
But with the anticipated gas-drilling boom coming this way — 20,000 to 200,000 jobs are expected to be created throughout Ohio — Ungaro believes the region will see an increase in population. And he is aiming to spur those people to call Liberty home.
Because the U.S. Postal Service does not assign a single ZIP code to the township — its addresses are broken up among Girard, Youngstown, Vienna and Hubbard — it is hard to create an actual demographic snapshot of Liberty.
The school district keeps records of the racial makeup of its student body, but not its ethnicity.
When comparing 2007 and 2010 district demographics, all subgroups increased except whites, which decreased from 66 percent of the total population to 61 percent.
The black-student population increased from 29 percent to 31 percent in 2010. Schools Superintendent Stan Watson said that figure is now closer to 40 percent.
“We do have a high number of Muslim and Jewish students,” Watson said. “We know that to be true.”
Judd Rubin, 40, a lifelong township resident, is now principal at Guy Middle School. He said the township was once a Jewish-dominated community. But as children aged and moved to other cities, the township was left with an aging Jewish population, but also with a younger, more diverse community.
Come February, he said the school district has several events planned for Black History Month.
Ungaro said the growth will be to the north side of the township, where there is plenty of acreage on which to develop commercial and residential areas.
Two years ago, the township laid down sewer and waterlines along Belmont Avenue from Church Hill Road all the way north to Vienna Township.
The project was paid for with a $1.5 million grant from the federal government.
“Money’s been spent,” Nudell said. “Now you have to bring in population.”
And after the population expands, “you’ll get the businesses,” Nudell said.
“Then you have to market yourself,” Ungaro said one recent morning in his office in the township administration building.
Nudell sat across the room from him. A black-and-white map of the township was folded on his desk. Ungaro said he does expect some push back from the community on the plan to market diversity, but he said a diversified Liberty is the future.
“Whether anybody likes it or not, it’s a fact,” Ungaro said.
“And diversity breeds success,” Nudell added.