Wednesday, September 19, 2007

New leaders, new business, and a new way of getting things done.

The Youngstown of 2007 does not resemble the Youngstown of year's past. In the last several years, three decades of complacency and failed action have been countered with sweeping changes which have resulted in Youngstown turning from a rusting dead city into one with future and promise. These changes come as the result of people of action, tired of waiting for someone to make the first move.

In 1977, as the reality of Black Monday set in, just at the time that far-away company presidents and board chairman began spending overseas the profits made in Youngstown, efforts to fix a broken town were stymied, would falter, or just plain fail. Our few working class heroes such as the late Bishop James Malone or Staughton Lynd labored to prevent the closing of the steel mills in the Valley. Their efforts were noteworthy, even valiant, but could not stop the loss of jobs and urban decay that the next thirty years would enough. Unfortunately for Youngstown, their moral authority wasn't near enough.

It is not hard to see that while some of Youngstown's political leaders of the 70's, 80's and 90's were both honest and hardworking, there were those individuals who still saw a struggling community as their playground – their place to bask in the sun and line their pockets. A congressman, judges, attorneys, county sheriffs and others in authority helped keep the Valley in the throes of recession and their shadow still haunts. But that is merely a chapter in the tale of this city and certainly not the end of the story. It is yet to be written.

While Youngstown has a long way to go to overcome the legacy of Black Monday, there are things happening in this Valley that we only dreamed of a few short years ago. We have a resurgent downtown with a new arena, new restaurants and clubs, a thriving technology incubator, new traffic patterns, and a group of professionals ready to take this city into the future. Three of these people have a unique perspective as leaders in the economic and social fight in which the city is engaged. This is the redevelopment of Youngstown through their eyes.

Jay Williams, Standard Bearer
A work in progress. It defines not just this city today, but a way in which to see it's future. The mayor of Youngstown has been at the center of the revolution in Youngstown long before he succeeded George McKelvey as this city's 47th mayor. As the city's director of economic development, he laid the groundwork for the Youngstown 2010 plan and continued that leadership as mayor.

And that plan doesn't end in 2010. Williams sees the Youngstown 2010 plan merely as a stepping stone into the future and something the city needs to continue to evolve. He only half jokes when he says that city leaders have done such a good job marketing Youngstown 2010 that pushing Youngstown 2020 is that much more difficult.

Regardless in the name of the plan the success of Youngstown, Williams said, is the transformation of attitudes within the city residents, especially the younger generations, who have lost the wait-and-see mentality to become a people of action.

"There has been a change in focus towards where the younger generation has been looking." With younger leaders such as Williams, state senator John Boccieri, and others now in office, this generation has a larger voice to get their message across.

To the naysayers, who don't see the progress in a redeveloping Youngstown, Williams argues, "look at any other area across the country and see how the condition of that central city has around the surrounding area." Youngstown as the core city and surrounding area, rise and fall together.

Allen Hunter, Innovation Ecologist
When it comes down to it, YSU chemistry professor Allen Hunter believes economic development in Youngstown is about the people.

“We’ve got a great framework, but we need to get more people at the ground level interacting,” says Hunter. That’s exactly what he tries to do while working with local business leaders to create the ideas of today that become tomorrow’s business models.

Hunter has been actively involved in projects throughout Youngstown emphasizing workforce development and expanding grant opportunities to local business in an attempt, he states, to expand Youngstown ‘innovation ecology.’

Innovation ecology, a term Hunter coined, is individuals and companies bringing their experiences and innovations together to create a sustainable marketplace. Hunter believes that is a realistic goal but is a point that Youngstown has not yet reached.

Hunter took his experience writing grants in the science field and, with the help of several colleagues, developed CEATIS Consulting, which has proven to be a successful tool in tapping into the state and federal funds which otherwise were not reaching the Mahoning Valley. This money allows for further research and development, provides workforce training, and funds other human services within the area.

Hunter’s goal is to just make the Youngstown area a better place to live, something he echoes each time he speaks on economic development by challenging his audience to ask themselves, “What have you done this week to make this better?"

Sarah Lown, Bridge Builder
Revitalizing the land which yesterday was a steel mill and is today a brownfield is just one of the many tasks which lay before Sarah Lown.

Lown, as the Director of Economic Development for Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, is responsible for facilitating the process by which area leaders can plan for transportation, economic development or environmental improvements.

Within Eastgate, Lown’s goal is to identify projects that would successfully be funded through the U.S. Economic Development Administration (US EDA). One of her most recent projects is the construction of the Walton Avenue Bridge in 2005. That project gave access to 800 acres of brownfields in Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers to enable new development to occur.

For the past several years, Lown has concentrated her efforts on revitalizing former industrial areas --brownfields-- along the Mahoning River corridor, which is the heart and soul of the Valley. She is also the current president of the Mahoning River Consortium, which is working to clean up the River and the land along its banks.

Lown grew up in New England and moved to Youngstown 15 years ago. Two things helped revitalize the New England town she grew up in.

“What I saw work was two things: artists, who saw the beauty of the New England landscape and its low cost historic homes, and industrial consortia to attract economic growth. Revitalization has to take place on many fronts like that in order to be sustainable and attractive to new investment.”

And what should the next step be for Youngstown? Lown believes there needs to be a continued effort to clean up the corridors going in and out of town which removes a tremendous psychological barrier to new investment. Further, and perhaps more importantly, a renewed emphasis on regionalism, more closely tying Youngstown, its suburbs and the surrounding areas together, perhaps in order to create the innovation ecology for which we should be striving.


Tyler said...

Thanks for profiling these leaders and the great commentary

Lou said...

Wow. Great Article, Great profiles. People like this need all the positive reinforcement they can get.

As a local resident I am proud to have people like Jay, Dr. Hunter and Sarah working on my behalf.

Bob Hagan said...

Sarah has an incredible love for the Valley and the people who try to make it better. She does her work as the biggest unsung hero.

Bob Hagan
State Rep