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Smaller is Better for Hard-Hit Steel Town

  • Mhari Saito

When city officials put together an economic development plan, they're usually talking about growth, either how to manage it in rapidly developing areas or how to attract businesses to older industrial cities. Then there's Youngstown, Ohio. This former steel town is getting ready to spend millions of tax dollars to shrink. It's a fairly radical plan, but one that Youngstown's Mayor says is the best way to bring his struggling city back to economic health.

The problem can be seen on Miltonia Avenue on Youngstown's east side. Virtually no one lives on the street, but it wasn't supposed to be that way. The city's chief planner Anthony Kobak points to utility wires and rusted fire hydrants that line the street. But something's missing: there are no driveways and no homes. "This was a situation where the city was ready for this development and it never happened," Kobak explains, "but you still have these streets and all this infrastructure that needs to be maintained."

In the 1950's, when Youngstown was the country's third largest steel producer, planners saw only growth. But new products like high-strength plastics and rising competition from abroad hit the U.S. steel industry hard. Youngstown lost many steel mills in the '70s and '80s, and with them more than half its population. Left behind were miles and miles of crumbling streets lined with empty homes, churches, schools and factories.

Youngstown State University's Hunter Morrison calls the city, "perhaps the poster child of the decline that's occurred in the industrial heartland." The director of the school's Center for Urban and Regional Studies has been helping put together the city's development plan.

The plan sounds simple, but Mayor Jay Williams says it's actually pretty radical. "I know for mayors, there are these magical round numbers," he says, "100,000 sounds great and somehow puts you in a different category, but why not be a city of 80 or 85,000 that offers a quality of life that allows you to compete?"

So, over the past two years, Youngstown has spent over a million dollars to demolish 400 structures.

What the city is building in its place is one of the most aggressive proposals in the country to deal with long-term economic decline, and it's being watched closely by other cities grappling with the same problems.

The question for Youngstown now is exactly how to execute the plan.

Planners have been meeting with residents to hash out ideas for neighborhood that are fighting early signs of blight. They're discussing setting up community centers and turning abandoned lots into parks and gardens. Officials hope ideas like this will get neighbors excited enough to stay and invest in their homes.

Long time resident Doug Cressman has watched neighbors leave and says these plans seem realistic. "I think it's finally time for the city to move on and concentrate on what it can do now for the people who live here now."

Dozens of neighborhood brainstorming sessions will be held this year. But the direction appears to be clear. Youngstown officials say they will save money by cutting services, taking neighborhoods off the power grid and closing down streets.

Planner Anthony Kobak stands outside a home that has only overgrown trees and hip high grass for neighbors and says the city will not force anyone to move. "This person might relocate in an adjacent neighborhood, or they might say, 'We like this.' So we'll work with them to acquire all these lots. But we'll also say, 'We're not going to maintain this road, now it's going to be a private drive. That's going to be up to you.'"

City officials have not yet identified exactly what parts of town will close, and there are worries that it will be neighborhoods that are home to Youngstown's poorest residents. But it's not just getting people to move that's the challenge. "Controlled shrinkage" is hard to sell to a culture used to suburban sprawl and growth, according to Frank Popper, one of the country's top land use experts. He specializes in resolving urban abandonment and blight issues and recognizes the challenge the city faces in trying to shrink. "We've never done it in this Youngstown-like prototypical industrial city… with such obvious high-stakes politics, at least for the local people."

And politics is part of the challenge. Youngstown is also looking at cutting the number of local politicians. But, perhaps to no one's surprise, Mayor Williams says talks to reduce the number of city council seats and local wards have not gone as well as plans to shrink the city itself.