Youngstown, 2010 plan feel absence of chief planner

officials: money woes prevent hiring for post

By Doug Livingston


National and local urban planners say Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland and Pittsburgh have survived and flourished through comprehensive city planning.

Well-staffed planning departments have revitalized post-industrial communities by transforming the stagnant business district in downtown Cleveland into a vibrant area for stores and eateries.

Likewise, once languishing Station Square in Pittsburgh has been revitalized as a revenue-raking tourist attraction.

Youngstown, like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, has embraced a comprehensive plan for the future: the Youngstown 2010 plan. Unlike Pittsburgh and Cleveland, however, some say the 2010 plan has lost momentum and point to the absence of a fully staffed city planning department as part of the problem.

City council members want to fill the position of city planner, vacant since Anthony Kobak quit in 2009. But at the urging of the city administrators, who say there isn’t money in the city’s general fund for the post, council hasn’t allocated funding for it.

William D’Avignon, director of the city’s Community Development Agency, said fully implementing the 2010 plan and effectively shrinking Youngstown has not happened because of vacancies in the planning department, which has lost three of its five employees since 2002 when the 2010 plan was drafted.

A 25 percent funding cut to local governments for the fiscal year beginning July 1 and then a 50 percent cut for the year beginning July 1, 2012 — proposed by the governor and approved by the Ohio House — discouraged filling the city planner and the park and recreation director positions, city officials say.

Councilman Jamael Tito Brown, D-3rd, said there may still be hope to seize administration funds for a chief planner from the CDA budget, which allocates state and federal entitlements for housing and urban development.

Mayor Jay Williams said that until concessions are made in other areas of government, namely the judicial and legislative branches, funding would remain scarce.

“It becomes virtually impossible to try to hire new people when you’re trying to first maintain the people you have,” Williams said.

His efforts to maintain staff at the police and fire departments take priority over the planning department.

“The argument isn’t whether planning is important,” Williams said, agreeing with council’s push for a city planner, but the mayor says he also has to focus on the pressing issues of crime and city services.

D’Avignon has assumed the duties of chief city planner for the past two years.

“The city has an internationally recognized plan, and effectively implementing it has been difficult without the proper staff,” D’Avignon said.

Bill Kline, director of research and advisory services for the American Planning Association, said planning staffs are logical targets for cuts.

“Cities are tightening their belts. People are getting laid off,” Kline said. “Who wants to cut back on the fire department and watch your house burn down?”

Officials agree the need to shield police and fire departments from major budgetary cuts is understandable, even at the expense of long-term planning efforts. But Kline and other urban-development experts say that to alleviate ongoing blight, crime and other elements, the city must look into the future.

Former city planners and experts in the American Planning Association explain that a city planner has the ability and training to think long term and comprehensively, bringing together all the issues that plague cities. A planner prioritizes these issues, seeks funds to address them and forms a plan.

D’Avignon said a city planner potentially could bring millions of dollars for urban development. But the city and taxpayers can’t afford the $180,000 cost for the chief planner and park and recreation director positions.

“If the person brings in grants, that’s fine,” Williams said. “But you don’t build the department around the hope that grants are going to come and sustain it.”

Williams said salary and benefit costs for the city’s employees account for nearly 80 percent of the general-fund budget. The city planner position would cost money when funds are dire. And the impact of the recession on state and local budgets has downsized the planning and urban development departments in many cities.

Hunter Morrison, former director of campus planning and community development for Youngstown State University and former Cleveland city planner, said council and administrators are not always in agreement over the importance of a planning department.

“As a planner who’s gone up against a lot of councilmen over a lot of years justifying my existence and the existence of the staff that worked for me in the city of Cleveland, it’s music to my ears” to hear that council and the mayor agree that planning is important, Morrison said.

Along with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., Williams has turned to YSU to help with the insufficient staffing at the planning department.

“Every city in Ohio that I know of is stretched, and nobody’s operating at an ideal strength,” Morrison said. “Every city in this day and age is faced with some hard choices between hiring cops and hiring planners, and usually they hire cops.”

The NewsOutlet is a joint media venture by student and professional journalists and is a collaboration of Youngstown State University, WYSU radio and The Vindicator.

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