Early reviews of the Ohio National Guard’s attack on urban blight in Youngstown are in, and most of them are nothing short of blockbuster.
House by house and block by block, about 40 members of the 1192nd Engineer Co. of Ravenna have come to the aid of the city with crushing force. In well-coordinated maneuvers that began July 10 and that will end Saturday, some of our state’s finest citizen soldiers are expected to demolish 28 homes in the vicinity of Hudson and Sheridan avenues on the South Side.
Their work is making a tangible contribution to the yeoman’s job of clearing thousands of abandoned, decaying, unsafe and unhealthy structures in Youngstown. For that progress, we issue a thanks and a plea to officials at the U.S. Department of Defense.
First, we thank them for approving this summer’s most productive two-week deployment. Second, we urge them to authorize a much longer deployment in 2018 to clear ten times as many blighted structures, as city leaders envision.
This summer’s short-term experimental mission, however, proved long enough to shed light on the arsenal of strategic gains the mission is accomplishing.
First, in sheer dollars and sense, the guardsmen’s volunteer work is saving the cash-strapped city an estimated $159,000 in demolition costs, according to Abigail Beniston, housing code enforcement and blight remediation superintendent for Youngstown. Those saved dollars can be allocated to razing other dilapidated buildings or toward other critical municipal needs.
Second, the inner-city deployment provides a viable and productive training ground for members of the Ravenna-based company of the Army National Guard. That unit specializes in the skillful use of heavy machinery, and few machines are more hulking than the imposing bulldozers, cranes and excavators used in razing decrepit homes.
The talents unit members hone in Youngstown then could be applied to a military scenario, where skillful structure demolitions can prove life-saving on the battlefield by denying shelter and supplies to enemy forces.
The well-deserved appreciation and compliments from neighbors also enhance the overall public perception of the guard, in particular, and the American military, in general.
PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the deployment though lies in strengthening overall public health and safety in the city – and doing so relatively rapidly. Because of its activation by the Department of Defense, the guard unit can work more quickly, unencumbered by some of the bureaucratic red tape that slows down traditional demolitions. As a result, the benefits of blight clearance can be expedited.
One of those benefits for Youngstown has been the stark reduction in vacant-home fires. The city witnessed a 35 percent decline in 2016, a trend that Fire Chief John O’Neill attributes in part to success in taking down 571 vacant structures last year.
Fewer vacant structures also mean fewer opportunities for abandoned housing to become breeding grounds for illicit drug and other criminal shenanigans.
As Guard Lt. Mike Huggins put it Monday, “It’s nice to partner with Youngstown and help to beautify the city. This work reduces violence because we’re removing houses that aren’t safe. There’s lots of kids in these neighborhoods. ... We’re here to make sure we are taking care of the community.”
The guard deployment also complements other creative projects to take care of Youngstown neighborhoods by making dents in the massive stockpile of decaying and nuisance properties.
Last summer, for example, volunteers from the 910th Civil Engineer Squadron, based out of the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna, helped the city street department take down about 80 houses on the South Side.
Those and other efforts add up. Since 2010, the city has successfully demolished more than 3,000 aging, vacant structures, with more than 1,000 coming down in 2016 and 2017 alone.
Clearly, however, with estimates of vacant structures needing torn down still hovering around 2,500, the momentum must continue. That means more work and more creative strategies loom large.
The National Guard experiment this month, however, shines as a great success. We therefore strongly urge the U.S. Defense Department to build upon that success with a larger and longer-lasting deployment to city neighborhoods next year.