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Creating plea for state money to reopen Youngstown Developmental Center

AUSTINTOWN — By May, the public should know if money will be appropriated in next year’s state budget to invest in making structural improvements to the former Youngstown Developmental Center. In the meantime, the Mahoning County commissioners are using $75,000 to get an assessment of the buildings on the 35-acre campus.

The assessment, to be carried out through the Western Reserve Port Authority, will identify the issues and the costs to make improvements to the facilities. If all goes well, numerous local nonprofits will expand their services and move some offices and programming to the state-owned site.

In January, lawmakers will start appropriation discussions for the state budget, and finalize them in May, said state Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown.

The assessment will give lawmakers the ammunition to show state money is needed to create a wraparound care campus for the area’s most vulnerable residents, including those with developmental disabilities and older people, Carol Rimedio-Righetti, Mahoning County commissioner, said.

“We need to open our eyes and worry about that population,” Rimedio-Righetti said, adding that lawmakers need to open their eyes and their hearts and support the facility.

Estimates for the costs of preparing the facility — like adding individual utility meters to the 10 buildings — range around $1.5 million.

The facility off County Line Road in Austintown is in Lepore-Hagan’s district and she said she will be working with Rep. Gil Blair, D-Weathersfield, and Rep. Michael J. O’Brien, D-Warren, to secure the funds next year.

Commissioners have until July 1 to buy the campus from the state for $1.

But after the transfer goes through, the facility could be managed or owned in several ways.

Sarah Lown, public finance manager for the port, said the port could be the property managers for the facility; or the commissioners could transfer ownership to the port to handle leases or sales on the campus; or the port could own the land and the nonprofits own the buildings.

“There are a lot of options to consider,” Lown said, and those decisions will be made as all of the parties involved consider which option will lead to the best outcomes.

COMPASS Family and Community Services, Alta Behavioral Health, Easterseals, Meridian Healthcare and Homes for Kids are some of the nonprofits hoping to use space there.

The state has already spent more than $1 million since the facility closed in 2017 on maintenance projects, including $1.1 million to fix the underground power system and cables.

Commissioner David Ditzler said he hopes the state sees the need for such an important project, especially since so much of the county’s local funds have been reduced by cuts from Columbus.

There is a void for the vulnerable in the community who are underserved, and that need is only expected to increase, said Mahoning County Commissioner Anthony Traficanti. By “stepping up the plate” now, Traficanti said, local leaders are doing what they can to ensure people can get treatment, respite and other services close to home, instead of sending their loved ones to other communities.

“This is a no-brainer,” Rimedio-Righetti said.

Lepore-Hagan said she wants to see the facility managed in a public, transparent and accountable way because a lot of tax dollars have already been invested, and more will be used once the new site opens.

The project will be “at the top of the list” in appropriation talks, Lepore-Hagan said.

“The closure was a devastating blow to those with loved ones who went there for generations, for decades,” Lepore-Hagan said. “To see it returned back to the community is a wonderful circle of life for it.”

rfox@tribtoday.com