The list of cities that beat out Youngstown for the Strong Cities, Strong Communities pilot program:
By Karl Henkel
Jay Williams is out as Youngstown’s mayor and so is federal assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Youngstown was not selected as one of six cities for President Barack Obama’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative, a pilot program to spark economic growth.
Presley Gillespie, executive director of the Youngstown Community Development Corp., told The Vindicator this week that Derek Douglas, White House director of urban affairs, told him that Williams’ departure was the reason Youngstown, thought to be a front-runner for one of six spots, won’t receive federal assistance.
The office of U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, an advocate for the assistance, released a statement Wednesday that backed up Gillespie’s claim.
“This program was always intended to be driven by the vision of the mayor,” said Jerid Kurtz, Ryan’s press secretary. “Due to Jay Williams’ appointment to the [Obama] administration, it became necessary to put Youngstown’s participation in this program on hold.
“Congressman Ryan will ensure the White House and the new mayor have an opportunity to talk about Youngstown’s future participation in this program.”
Williams will leave as mayor Aug. 1 and will take over the position of executive director of the Department of Labor’s Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers on Aug. 8.
Under the Strong Cities program, federal agencies will work with local government officials and provide fellowship programs to give cities additional resources.
Gillespie said because of the close work with officials, and because HUD officials were fond of Williams, who instituted the nationally acclaimed Youngstown 2010 initiative, Williams’ departure was the reason Youngstown didn’t receive a bid.
“He [Douglas] clearly articulated that across the country with this program, the mayors’ offices are really the pivotal points of entry into the cities,” Gillespie said. “My instinct is that is that they [HUD] aren’t familiar with the remaining political leadership.”
Douglas did not return a call placed to his Washington, D.C., office Wednesday.
Councilman DeMaine Kitchen, D-2nd, who took part in meetings with HUD officials when they visited Youngstown during the interview process, said all indications were that the city would eventually receive the federal assistance.
“We have to question whether the support was geared toward the mayor or toward the city,” he said. “If the decision didn’t have anything to do with the mayor leaving, I’d like to know what the reasons were.”
But a HUD spokeswoman told The Vindicator on Tuesday that Williams’ departure didn’t play into the organization’s decision.
“We recognize that there are other cities across the country that need help,” she said.
A White House official did not comment on whether Williams’ departure played a role but said there wasn’t one factor that weighed more heavily than others.
Williams did not respond to calls to his cell or office phones on Tuesday or Wednesday seeking comment.
Chuck Sammarone, city council president who will take over as mayor in August, said he did not attend meetings with HUD officials and said he was disappointed it based the decision on Williams.
“Either we deserved it or we didn’t deserve it,” he said.
Sammarone said he didn’t believe all members of city government needed to attend the HUD meetings, but that if he had been asked, he would have attended.
Losing out on the Strong Cities program is the second major blow dealt to the Valley in the last two years.
In January 2010, HUD rejected Youngstown’s $32.4 million, nine-community proposal to develop hard-hit communities and to create jobs.
After HUD rejected what was revealed as a flawed city application, local leaders including Williams traveled to Washington to meet with White House and HUD officials to make the city’s case about additional funding in March 2010.
After the meeting — which included representatives from Detroit and Cleveland, two cities selected for the pilot program — Williams told The Vindicator, “I came away with the continuing and increased belief that these [talks] will result in federal government and national philanthropic investments” in Youngstown.
Chester, Pa., Fresno, Calif., Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans were the other cities chosen for the program.
HUD hasn’t completely ignored the Mahoning Valley.
Last week, it approved a $20 million to $22 million demolition and replacement of the Youngstown Metropolitan Housing Authority’s Westlake Terrace project.