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Lowdown on downtown Youngstown

Published: Mon, February 20, 2012 @ 12:01 a.m.

Lowdown on downtown Youngstown: Urban rebirth accelerates, though marketing lags

By Karl Henkel



The number of workers and residents in downtown Youngstown has increased in recent years. A group of downtown business owners will meet next month with one goal being to help promote the area.


A variety of new restaurants?


Continuing improvements, including bike racks and increased police presence?


A surefire marketing campaign to promote a flourishing downtown?

Not so much.

For the first time in years, downtown Youngstown is on the move.

New apartments have and will continue to open in the area. Business activity has picked up. Even a locally owned cab service has started.

City leaders say it’s a great start, but it must continue by marketing and diversifying the downtown area, most notably Federal Street.

“I didn’t even realize it had any marketing, to be honest with you,” said Michael Pontikos, marketing and advertising professor at Youngstown State University.

The marketing aspect is “low-hanging fruit,” said Phil Kidd, community organizer at Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.

Kidd, who grew up in the bustling Pittsburgh metro area, said developing a cohesive branding of the city through signs and pamphlets — and having them available in every business — is the first step toward promoting downtown.

“Those are easy things we can do right now,” he said.

At this point, though, even that’s easier said than done.

Youngstown has been without a city planner since 2009. Mayor Charles Sammarone plans to hire one this year, but the city’s marketing budget — about $50,000 last year — and that of the Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau – about $200,000 — is strapped thin.

Phil Moore, county Convention and Visitors Bureau director, however, said money isn’t the only factor.

“You have to have a coalition of participating businesses,” Moore said. “We need a better level of businesses marketing themselves.”

Moore said the department is prohibited from providing funds to for-profit entities, but if downtown businesses banded together, the department could provide developmental grants.

Lyndsey Hughes, city director of Youngstown events, said next month a group of local business will meet to form the Downtown Business Alliance of Youngstown for that reason.

Those grants could help the alliance pay for signs and pamphlets, one marketing technique that can boost the city from the outside-in.

Growing from the core is another option; Kidd says there’s a desperate need for more market-rate housing.

But just how much?

“If you had 500 more market rate housing units in Youngstown, over a five-year period you’d fill those units,” Kidd said.

The city will add 40 more apartments at Erie Terminal Place this summer.

Moore, however, said that support services, such as drugstores and dry cleaners, are important to making an area livable.

“Trying to market that before they solve a lot of other problems is like throwing money away,” he said. “There isn’t any of that down there now and I’m not aware of any plans or talk about any of that being developed.”

Pontikos said deciding whether to grow the city internally is a critical part of the marketing process.

“Any type of branding or re-branding is really understanding who you are internally,” he said. “With so many different messages, it’s kind of hard to get through to people.”

Moore instead suggested the city, county, Youngstown State University and other organizations focus on bringing people from the outside-in.

Aside from the Covelli Centre and Oh WOW!, which Moore said has been hugely successful at bringing families downtown, the area is chocked full of restaurants.

Kidd said diversifying the area is a good next step.

Some of those ideas include recreational activities such as a small downtown movie theatre. Today a Youngstown resident has to travel to Boardman, Niles or Austintown for the closest family movie theatre.

Kidd said it wouldn’t have to be big — a small screen, independent theatre similar to Austintown Movies, which closed in 2006 — could be sufficient.

“I really think it’s time to start rethinking that as an entertainment option downtown,” he said.

Other options, such as a bowling alley or any other “hangout-type” atmosphere, would give those in the city more local options and suburbanites more reasons to visit Youngstown.

“What it does more than anything else is you would begin to create an experience for young people in an urban center downtown,” Kidd said.


1PhilKidd(189 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

For the record: I'm not saying downtown Youngstown is in a position - or even ready at this point - for things such as bowing alleys and small movie theaters. However, a single screen, niche, independent movie screening now at a already-existing venue (Ex. Oakland Theater) could work (right now). The point I was attempting to make is that more diverse entertainment options of this nature will need to be a consideration as downtown continues to grow over time. That is true of almost any (successful) downtown (even regionally).

Also, while I like and respect Phil Moore, I disagree with his comment that marketers and residential developers would be 'throwing away' money because of lack of amenities such as a drug store or a dry cleaner. Case in point: every residential unit in downtown Youngstown is currently occupied. In fact, there is more demand that supply at present. I receive emails and phone calls on a regular basis from people (from all different types of backgrounds) regarding availability of good housing units downtown. I have no answer for them other than to speak with current developers about future availability of current units (ie. a waiting list).

My point here is that the market has already arrived. Oh, and the residential is going to have to come before the retail in case you are wondering about that chicken and egg question. Sorry but that's just how it's going to play out in Youngstown (for different reasons...some economic, some geographic, some historic).

To that end, my point of being able to market and fill 500+ units over 5 (or so) years also assumes that such a residential presence will also attract the drug stores and dry cleaners over the same period of time (which it would).

In sum: When it comes to residential in downtown Youngstown: Build it (and price it right) and they will come.

Now, about marketing downtown in general...

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2Lifes2Short(3882 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

I love that picture. Kudos to who every took it. Impressive.

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3georgejeanie(1544 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

Right on,the thinker. All propped up by local government which gets their money through income tax and state and federal handouts. Those businesses come and go. When the subsidies run out they run out. These so called apartments will be section 8 housing within ten years, to go along with all the other human warehouses in the area.

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4BusDriver(46 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

On certain days an open air market fresh produce and such, different kind of gift stores, maybe selling current art work from the students at YSU, Just like the one in the strip district in pittsburgh, that place isnt in the greatest location but people flock there. YSU students are right there and live in the dorms maybe taking a survey of the students and asking what they would like to see go downtown so it would be more convenient for them, they already have the bar scene down there, but some type of stores that will make it more convenient for them. Even though Pittsburgh has sports teams that people go to see, I still enjoy going there because it reminds of the days when our downtown was booming. I'm not sure how the leasing goes on down in those buildings but when small business's come to lease maybe a short term lease so they can see how they will grow into the downtown, without having this long term lease hanging over their heads or the obligation to buy the building.

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5bsafeandproud(46 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

Mr. Kidd's individual efforts, along with DefendYoungstown, in marketing positive economic ventures for downtown have always been worth supporting. I look past the fact that Phil's employer, the MVOC/Kirk Noden, is geared towards cementing the socialist welfare model into the fabric of Youngstown culture, and I try to separate the man from his paycheck.

When we see the emphasis of pulling in family-neutral entities such as movie theaters (i.e. downtown Columbiana), bowling alleys, open-air markets, street vendors, full service grocery stores (i.e. Bottom Dollar), and dry cleaners, we can begin to hope to clean up downtown's dark, tarnished reputation and attract solid, middle-income families that spend their time and $$ within downtown.

In contrast, we see Lyndsey Hughes and the like proudly paint a picture of downtown with the bars, tattoo parlors, the bars, Occupy Communist Y-town (with the Lemon Grove owner at the front of the parade), the bars, sleazeball vulgar bands Motley Crew and Poison, the bars, and the after 6pm college crowd to drink, party, drink and drink.

If the latter is downtown's cesspool future direction, then the suburbs and rural destinations will shine even brighter.

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6Superstar7(122 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

Inde. theatre?
We would attend regularily even if some movies didn't have a particular interest.
rid the area of the panhandlers that follow us for money every time we go downtown.
Heed the concerns of the business people that have regular problems with the people that make it unsafe to be downtown early & late.

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7pgurney(296 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

RE: thethinker - "Government is failing its citizens while it is cheered by interest groups who don't have a clue.

The focus should be on public safety, take off the rose colored glasses."

I could not agree more. While I like and respect Phil Kidd, and I hope that he does not take this the wrong way if he reads my comments here, I do disagree with him on more than I agree with. Sorry Phil.

It irritates me to no end to read about all of these grandiose plans for downtown when there are neighborhoods falling down around it.

How do you think people on the East side or the South side, or ANY side of this city with rundown neighborhoods, feel when they read articles like this? I can hear their thoughts - "all that money going into making DOWNTOWN successful, and pretty, etc, and look at where we live? We can't even get the ROADS PAVED".

On my street alone, there are potholes that'll tear the car apart. Are they going to get fixed? Nope. No money. Is the vacant delapidated house across the street from Taft Elementary going to be demolished? They tell us yes, but I'll believe that when I see it. How about the man who came to the Safety Summit at St. Doms church a few weeks ago, who lives on Hilton Avenue and told us that there are 16 - yes SIXTEEN - vacant, deteriorating houses on his street alone.

C'mon, do you really think that anyone in any of these neighborhoods gives a rats ass about all the money going into downtown when they're being told there's not enough money to clean up their neighborhoods? Seriously??

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8city_resident(528 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

pgurney, I also live in the city, and would rather see resources spent on a targeted area--where results can be seen, than spreading them throughout the city--where the results wouldn't be noticed.

Something else I'd like to mention. There have been residential conversions in downtown Cleveland for 15+ years. There are THOUSANDS of people living there, and the demand continues to be strong. Yet, they still lack some of the basic amenities that some feel are necessary for people to want to live there.

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9legend33(169 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

There will be some additional space when the post office distribution center closes in a couple months.

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10city_resident(528 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

One more thing. I definitely think marketing/branding downtown would help. Look at all these comments saying that there are only bars downtown, and that people only go there to drink.

I'm almost a teetotaler; I can't remember the last time I had an alcoholic beverage. (LOL, it's been years, not last night before a blackout) Anyway, I feel perfectly comfortable having dinner in most of the establishments downtown, despite the fact that they happen to serve alcohol.

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11bsafeandproud(46 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

pgurney - Local, state and federal public funds absolutely need to be pulled into the surrounding neighborhoods to control crime, demo homes and fix roads. I admire your activism, which is a rarity, as most city residents are 3rd generation welfare or too old with little energy left to be on the front lines. Just take my advice and keep the MVOC out of YOUR neighborhood.

Simutaneously, I truly believe a marketing campaign to promote the benefits of downtown living and business start-up can pay off for itself, even on a well-planned, targeted SMALL budget, combined with both private and public funds. Phil Kidd has proven himself to work with little and get much out of it, I support all of his marketing efforts.

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12Goat(6 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

I know I'll regret wading into the cesspool that is the Vindicator comments section but I'd like to clear up one glaring error--the assumption that rational market forces, rather than governmental planners at the behest of groups with money and power are responsible for the mass suburbanization of the post-WWII era.
Surely there are benefits to suburban living just as there are benefits to living in the city but governmental policy of the last 60 years has been geared toward the suburbs at the expense of cities. The interstate highway system, tax incentives for suburban building, government subsidized infrastructure in the suburbs, and the like have drawn as many people to the suburbs as a desire for a somewhat bigger front yard. These are all governmental policies that have led to artificial growth of suburbs and exurbs. There's nothing wrong with a fraction of the money/incentives finally being used to try to improve city living.

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13DwightK(1537 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

Yesterday part of the discussion centered around getting to downtown and the safety factor once you are there. If the city leaders want families form the suburns to come down, they need to make it feel safer. Going to the Oh Wow! museum is fun. Parking around the corner and walking past that little store with guys hanging out in front of it isn't. There aren't panhandlers in the suburbs so getting hit up while walking downtown chases people away.

If you want suburb dollars, you have to lose those downtown doing nothing but loitering and panhandling.

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14DwightK(1537 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

toycannon, it's not accurate to say these are the same leaders. Jay Williams ran as an independent and beat the Democratic candidate. Instead of trying to build the city up he tried to manage its shrinkage, knocking down more vacant properties than any other mayor. Mayor Sammarone is adopting a similar method, especially with the grant money recently made available for demolishing vacant properties.

Yes, government will play a role in revitalizing downtown but this is not the government of Ungaro or McKelvey.

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15bmanresident(607 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

I enjoy reading comments from people who see past all the bs. All that is downtown is government money and subsidies. Lemon Grove? government funding. Covelli Center? government funding. Pharmor building? government funding. And the only hope we have to get private dollars into the area is being disrupted by Comrade Hagan from his bar stool at the Commie Grove.

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16AFgrad(12 comments)posted 4 years, 5 months ago

I lived in Youngstown 27yrs - have lived the past 7yrs in Columbus. In order for people to move downtown there needs to be jobs downtown or close by. People don't live downtown and commute outside the city generally to work. Columbus has a thriving downtown because a lot of people work downtown. Once they are here a city has to find things for them to do to keep them here after work is over. Entertainment, dining, cultural. Youngstown had it all when a lot of it's population worked in industry all along the Mahoning river. That has evaporated as has many of the towns along the river that developed because of the jobs brought by industry. Who are the primary residents of Youngstown during the day. Workers who leave after the day is over. If their job was not downtown I hardly think they would be there. Youngstown has a lot of problems. None that will be easy to overcome.

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