This column originally appeared on Youngstown State University’s The News Outlet.
Nearly a decade ago, the city of Youngstown was in the midst of finalizing a comprehensive plan that sought to create a bold new vision for the struggling Rust Belt community.
Unlike most city plans which promote growth, 2010 suggested a managed ‘right-sizing’ which embraced the notion that a new approach was needed to deal with the numerous challenges associated with decades of economic and population decline.
The 2010 planning process began in earnest in 2002 and was led by then-Community Development Agency director Jay Williams in partnership with Youngstown State University and Urban Strategies Inc. of Toronto, Canada. The plan (and its process) was aggressively marketed throughout the local area.
The Vindicator ran a four-part series prior to the first citywide public meeting at Stambaugh Auditorium in 2002 (and another series in 2008); a news conference was held to announce the community meeting schedule; two public service announcements ran for a nine month period in 2004; and local PBS affiliate WNEO produced a live program series, ‘2010 Moving Ahead: A Forum For Reporting Progress’.
Billboard advertisements donned city corridors encouraging residents to get involved. A website for the plan was developed as was memorabilia such as t-shirts, tote bags, writing materials and even electronic logos for computer wallpaper.
An art project – ‘Faces Of 2010’ – asked residents to contribute renditions of themselves in a mosaic layout which, coincidently, generated exactly 2,010 individual faces.
After three years of community engagement in which an estimated 5,000 people participated, the final plan was unveiled to over 1,300 people at Stambaugh Auditorium in January 2005.
Once a final draft was inked, the Youngstown 2010 Comprehensive Citywide Plan was adopted by City Council and soon began to generate local, national and even international media and academic recognition.
For example, in 2006, the plan received the ‘National Planning Excellence Award For Community Outreach’ by the American Planning Association and was also named to the New York Times’ annual ‘Best Ideas Of The Year’ list.
In 2005, Jay Williams – a political novice – decided to run for mayor as an Independent candidate using the Youngstown 2010 Plan as his platform. He would go on to defeat Democratic Party candidate and then-State Senator Bob Hagan by a 12 point margin.
The win was historic as Williams became the city’s first African-American mayor and – at 34 years of age – its youngest as well.
This new vision and new leadership created high hopes in the community. For the duration of his time as Mayor, Williams was asked to speak about the plan at numerous engagements throughout the nation which raised both he and Youngstown’s profile.
However, as time passed, concern in the community grew that commitment to the plan was waning. In 2008, a historic recession exasperated an already overwhelming economic situation in the city. Eventually, Williams, himself, would begin to describe 2010 as a ‘journey and not a destination.”
Then, in 2009, the city’s chief planner and Youngstown 2010 project director, Anthony Kobak, abruptly resigned and was not replaced. Two years later in August 2011, Jay Williams, himself, resigned to accept a position with the Obama administration. His replacement – Chuck Sammarone – would dismiss the plan outright.
So, ten years later, what was accomplished under Youngstown 2010 and what is the condition of the city today?
The plan contained a final chapter which outlined implementation strategies both citywide and for each side of town. Those strategies ranged from very general to somewhat specific and were organized under three themes: ‘Clean’, ‘Green’ and ‘Better Planned & Organized’.
This column will take a look at some of the key goals from that chapter while also examining some key finding from the recent neighborhood conditions report issued by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation.
Perhaps one of the most curious goals of Youngstown 2010 was a hope that the city could stabilize its population at 80,000 residents.
This remained a goal in the final 2005 draft despite the fact that the city’s population in the year 2000 – two years prior to the start of the Youngstown 2010 planning process – had already declined to 82,000.
Additionally, the city had been losing an average of nearly 16 percent population each decade for the past forty years due to a nationwide trend of suburban sprawl dating as far back as the 1930s and later exasperated by the collapse of the local steel industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
When the 2010 U.S. Census report was released, it revealed that the city had lost an additional 18.4 percent of its population. The news was met with shock by some city officials who anticipated more population loss but not to such a degree.
Two years later in 2012, an updated Census report showed that Youngstown led the nation in population loss between 2010-2012 among cities with a population of 50,000 or greater. Meanwhile, Mahoning County led Ohio in population loss from 2011-2012.
In fact, between 1990 and 2010, the only area of the city where the number of residents grew was the East Side due to the construction of two prisons.
Youngstown’s current population now stands at approximately 65,000, a 61 percent decrease since its peak.
Crime, Education & Income
While the Youngstown 2010 Plan – largely a land use plan – did not directly address issues of crime, education and poverty, it’s important to review these items as they do speak to the holistic health of the city and impact planning objectives.
Regarding crime, calls for police service for violent and property crime in the city decreased by nearly a third between 2003 and 2012. Annual homicide rates decreased sharply as well in comparison to a peak in the mid-1990s. However, it should be noted that the city’s population decline also plays a factor in these figures as well.
Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of residents without a high school diploma dropped by 14 percent and those with a college degree rose by nearly a third. However, 20 percent of adults in the city still do not have a high school diploma while only 16 percent have a four-year college degree or higher. This leaves Youngstown with a higher percentage of residents without a high school diploma and a lower percentage of residents with a post-secondary degree than almost any other city of comparable size and composition in the nation.
Employment and income statistics are not much better. As of 2011, the unemployment rate in the city stood at 19.5 percent (some place it even higher). The median household income is now $24,880, which is significantly lower than Mahoning County ($40,123) and nearly half that of Ohio ($47,358).
Unfortunately, more than a third of city residents live in poverty (36 percent). In fact, Youngstown led the nation in 2011. Additionally, the suburban poverty rate in Mahoning County also rose by nearly 40% since 2000.
Housing, Code Enforcement & Demolition
One of the most significant challenges facing Youngstown’s neighborhoods is vacant and abandoned property, whose rate has doubled since 1990 and now sits at 19 percent.
The Youngstown 2010 Plan identified several goals in dealing with this issue: targeting of highly visible demolitions; converting surplus school buildings into green space; reorganizing the city’s code enforcement department; creating a housing court; improving the city’s land bank program; and seeking state funds for demolition and redevelopment of larger commercial structures.
When he entered office in 2006, Williams’ administration made demolition a priority by increasing the budget for it several fold.
Williams also sought from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a waiver aimed at helping accelerate the demolition process. However, his request was ultimately denied. In fact, additional regulations would eventually be enacted which nearly doubled the cost of the average demolition in the city.
Two years into the Williams administration came the ‘Great Recession’ and a new wave of foreclosures which compounded an already overwhelming problem.
Eventually, residents began to organize. In 2008 and again in 2010, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative conducted a citywide vacant property survey. The 2010 results reported a vacancy rate of 44.8 structures per 1,000 residents, a figure nearly 20 times the national average
These reports led to a campaign around the issue. Between 2008 and 2010, neighborhood groups in the city more than doubled (20 in 2005 to 49 in December 2013). A collective effort between organized residents of Youngstown and Warren along with local officials and policy organizations led to the passage of a state law which allowed for the creation of county land banks in both Mahoning and Trumbull counties in 2011.
However, it was obvious that additional help was needed with neighborhood development and planning as well. In 2009, the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation was formed in response to this need.
While some notable development has taken place over the past ten years (mostly in the downtown and near-North Side), the most comprehensive neighborhood development took place in the Idora neighborhood, one of only a handful of neighborhoods to receive a comprehensive plan under Youngstown 2010.
Spearheaded by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation, efforts have included aggressive demolition and board-up programs; vacant lot beautification; mural projects; multiple community gardens and an urban farm; and home rehabilitation and purchasing programs.
The success of the work in Idora has led to recognition both nationally and internationally. But, it’s also created greater demand for similar programming citywide – a constant challenge with almost any program or service in the city. Currently, the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation focuses its programming in six target neighborhoods throughout the city.
In addition to development, residents also advocated for better and more strategic use of other city services such as demolition (a recommendation that would later be supported by a federal report in 2013) and code enforcement (which the Youngstown 2010 Plan identified as well).
Those reforms largely came under the administration of Mayor Chuck Sammarone in 2011. Inspectors were organized under a single coordinator; a housing appeals board was established (as was a housing court in 2004); a city prosecutor was assigned to cases; code enforcement and demolition tracking websites were created; rental and vacant properties were required to be registered (note: over 15 percent of all property in the city is currently owned by out-of-state residents or companies); a $10,000 bond ordinance on bank foreclosures was passed; and Street Department personnel were used to help with demolition (which still, largely, lacks a strategic approach).
The success of these reforms can be demonstrated in a single year where, beginning in August 2011, 59 residential and commercial demolitions were carried out by private property owners due to pressure from the city. This saved taxpayers approximately $900,000.
Also, $870,000 had been generated from the bank foreclosure bond in its first year (money that is used to maintain or, perhaps, eventually demolish foreclosed properties).
Registration programs and code enforcement cases resulted in over 300 individual citations with nearly 200 coming under compliance.
There have been other contributions as well. Many of the city’s older school buildings were demolished under a $180 million school rebuilding program. Several still remain while those not sold to charter schools have been converted to green space or walking parks as the Youngstown 2010 suggested.
However, several newly constructed schools are still vacant as the school district continues to struggle with chronic fiscal challenges due to state cuts and a loss of students caused by open enrollment, and voucher and charter school alternatives. School district officials are even considering selling the school administration building downtown.
The city’s main corridors remain a challenge in terms of redevelopment but significant progress has been made on a few. The most notable efforts have been on Market Street where Community Corrections Association has spent approximately $800,000 on the demolition of 48 buildings and the maintenance of 16 landscaped lots for a two-plus-mile stretch. A handful of other buildings have been acquired by the organization for office space. However, much vacancy remains.
Glenwood Ave has also seen improvement due largely to the efforts of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation which partnered with the city and other organizations to demolish several vacant structures, organize mural projects and create additional green space such as Glenwood Community Park.
Other smaller efforts have included citizen group cleanups and beautification projects on US-422, McGuffey Road, South and Mahoning avenues.
The state’s Clean Ohio Fund also played an important role in helping fund several larger demolition projects such as the YBM property in Crab Creek, commercial buildings for student housing on the city’s North Side, and several larger structures in the downtown area, to name a notable few. According to city officials, over $7.6 million of funding has been received for 12 different projects since 2005.
And at of the time of this writing, the county land bank announced that it had secured another $4.2 million from the state for demolition of residential properties in ‘tipping point’ neighborhoods in Youngstown and adjoining townships.
All told, there were 3,062 demolitions from 2007 to 2013 and the annual number of foreclosure filings fell by 56 percent.
But despite these efforts (much of which has been recent), the average price for a single family home in the city fell by nearly a third during the same period of time.
In 2013, the average price of a single family home in the city was $21, 327.
As a result, YNDC’s 2014 Neighborhood Conditions Report lists only two Census tracks in the city as ‘Stable’, both them located on the southwest side. An additional six are rated as ‘Functional’. The remainder of this city is considered ‘Constrained’, ‘Weak’ or ‘Extremely Weak’.
Parks & Recreation
Youngstown 2010 set general goals of ‘creating and maintaining high quality city parks’ while also ‘converting select city parks to new land uses’ and ‘supporting Mahoning River restoration projects.’ – vague yet ambitious goals, to be sure.
With the exception of Mill Creek MetroParks, the city has over 40 parks which it has maintained over the years. However, the park system, like much of the rest of the city, has been faced with the same reality of having to downsize.
To that end, in March 2013, the City of Youngstown Park & Recreation board commissioned Youngstown State’s Urban & Regional Studies department to conduct an assessment of the park system. The report recommended transferring 12 properties to private entities and closing another six. Perhaps the most notable park activity had to do with the board, itself, which residents voted to abolish in November 2013.
Regardless, efforts were made to improve some remaining parks. Youngstown CityScape raised over $150,000 for North Side’s Wick Park. Improvements included landscaping, signage, gates, and roadway and sidewalk improvements. Those efforts earned a Northeast Ohio Community Impact Award.
Arlington’s Hope 6 Project included new playground equipment and a community center.
Fosterville Park on Glenwood Ave was removed to make way for the Bottom Dollar grocery store but was replaced by Glenwood Community Park in 2013.
The former Jackson Elementary school in the Buckeye Plat neighborhood was demolished and converted to a walking park. Also, a small basketball court and community garden area were installed in the Lincoln Knolls neighborhood on the East Side.
Despite the downsizing, most residents still live within a half-mile of a park or playground with the exception of several larger, rural areas of the East Side and the Pleasant Grove and Cottage Grove neighborhoods on the lower South Side.
However, perhaps the most underutilized recreational asset in the city of Youngstown remains the Mahoning River.
During the city’s steel era, the river was used as a cooling and dumping mechanism for much of the industry’s raw product. This led to severe contamination which is still an issue today.
Within the past decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was commissioned to conduct a $3.5 million study on how to clean up the river, an effort estimated to cost $150 million.
The study was delayed in ‘Phase II’ and was never completed due to a variety of factors such disagreement about approach, lack of political will and, perhaps most importantly, lack of funding.
However, in 2013, officials at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency approved funding to remove the first of several locks along the river in Lowellville.
Funding was also secured to begin demolition of the Wean United Building next to the Market Street Bridge, a long-time downtown eyesore.
Plans have also been discussed to build an outdoor amphitheatre adjacent to the Covelli Centre, downtown’s convention center. However, recently elected Mayor John McNally said these plans need to include a larger riverfront development strategy, an encouraging sign for river recreation advocates.
Business & Development
The business & development front featured both positive and not so positive headlines.
The first was the city’s failed 2008 attempt to reach an agreement with surrounding townships to establish a Joint Economic Development District, a fairly common practice in other metropolitan areas throughout Ohio.
Youngstown’s proposal included a deal in which water would be provided to township businesses in exchange for income tax paid by employees of those businesses to the city, with a portion of that income tax split with township governments. The deal would have also reduced or eliminated the city’s water surcharge rate for all township residents while reducing the city’s existing income tax rate by a half percent.
Trustees viewed the deal as a money grab by the city and rejected the proposal. Despite a State Supreme Court ruling which would have allowed the city to pursue annexation, the Williams administration chose not to pursue that option nor continue to pursue a Joint Economic Development Agreement. A similar attempt was made in 2013 by Mayor Chuck Sammarone with a racino project in Austintown. However, this, too, was rejected.
A successful regional agreement was reached with the city of Girard in relation to the Vallourec Star expansion project. The nearly billion dollar steel pipe plant – considered the largest construction project in the nation at the time – required a shared land agreement with a revenue sharing plan included between the two communities. After rather contentious negotiations, a successful deal was reached and the project was completed 2012.
Perhaps the most significant development in the city involved the beginning of the rebirth of downtown Youngstown.
In 2004, Federal Street was reopened and several new government buildings and courthouses replaced dilapidated structures. In 2005, a $42 million convention center was opened and a state-recognized entertainment district was established.
Coupled with an economic development program for small businesses (‘The Youngstown Initiative’), a number of new bars and restaurants soon began to open. Significant circulation was beginning to flow once again in downtown Youngstown.
In 2008, the ribbon was cut on the Realty Tower, an $8.4 million market-rate apartment building in Central Square. This was followed by similar projects such as the Davis Building, Federal Building and Erie Terminal Place.
Future projects such as the Wells, Wick and Gallagher Buildings (apartments, restaurants and office space) are scheduled for 2014. A 110-room hotel is slated for the Stambaugh Building in 2015, a true bellwether for the success of downtown’s continued renaissance.
However, arguably the most significant part of the storyline of downtown development has been the Youngstown Business Incubator, a non-profit organization which provides office space and services for business-to-business technology startups.
The incubator has grown from a single office building to a four building campus in over a decade and a half. It houses more than a dozen small businesses as well as ‘graduate’ Turning Technologies (an industry leader in response technology) as well as the National Additive Manufacturing Institute, a research & development center spearheaded by the Obama administration.
Another noteworthy development taking place in the city is the rise of urban agriculture.
In addition to traditional community gardens, larger-scale projects have also begun to take root such as the Iron Roots Urban Farm, Commonwealth Kitchen Incubator, community supported agriculture programs and several weekly farmers markets.
In response this activity, the city school district’s Choffin Career Center created an aquaponics training facility in 2012.
Last but not least, the city completed a new zoning code – a goal of Youngstown 2010. The new code is designed to better match the reality of the smaller city that Youngstown is today. It’s also considered to be one of the more progressive codes in the nation.
New Planning Process
While the Youngstown 2010 Plan’s goals were rather general and commitment to seeing it through either the lacked capacity or political will (or both), perhaps its greatest contribution was the energy and capacity it created, indirectly.
The process brought thousands of residents together to discuss a new vision for the city. That new vision raised the profile and changed the perception of the community on a national and even international level. It also led to a historic election which demonstrated that politics-as-usual isn’t always a foregone conclusion in Youngstown.
Residents began to organize in their neighborhoods. Downtown began to make its comeback. City Hall was challenged to step up its game and made changes that have been helpful. Philanthropic support shifted and initiatives where supported (and in some cases, created) to help lay the groundwork for much of the community activity that we see today.
Without question, the city still faces enormous challenges. Much work still needs done on almost every front. The need will continue for quite some time.
However, it appears Youngstown has a better footing to do something about some of these issues now more so than in years past.
This year, the city has begun a new planning process which is being led by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation. Given Youngstown’s arguably weak history of follow through with such initiatives, many residents are skeptical about any new plan.
However, planning is important because it builds consensus and creates a game plan around common issues. It can also serve as an important tool for holding people, organizations and City Hall accountable if it’s done well and used correctly.
To that end, given Youngstown’s recent momentum, the hope of many residents is that lessons learned from the past decade should be used to create more reasonable strategies.
The strategies may be smaller. But if they are specific, realistic, and achievable, they will create ‘wins’ for the city. And much-need momentum that will lead to greater success over time.
If that’s what comes from this process, then it will be a success and worth the effort. But follow through will always lie in the hands of the city as well as organizations and individuals willing to make things happen and hold others accountable.
At the end of the day, a city is just a place and it’s what people who care about it choose to make of it. Despite its many challenges, that’s true of Youngstown as it is anywhere else.
There is no single business, organization, plan or individual that can ‘save’ Youngstown. There is only the community. And it will continue to take a lot more work and dedication by many to create the change Youngstown needs.