Marshall Fund Panel Focuses on Downtown Revitalization
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Keys to revitalizing downtown include collaboration among stakeholders and embracing a larger vision both geographically and conceptually, speakers said at a panel discussion Monday morning.
The vision for downtown and potential partnerships where the subject of the opening session of the Youngstown Strong Cities, Strong Communities Bootcamp. The two-day workshop is being held at the Covelli Centre by the German Marshall Fund of the United States in support of the federal Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative.
The morning session, “Articulating a Vision for Partnership,” was split into two panels. One featured local stakeholders discussing the role their institutions can play in the creation of a “downtown business research district” while the other featured representatives of other communities and institutions sharing best practices.
Mayor John McNally moderated the first panel, which featured Jim Cossler, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator; Robert Shroder, president and CEO, Humility of Health Partners; Dr. Martin Abraham, dean of the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Youngstown State University; and Dr. Laura Meeks, president of Eastern Gateway Community College.
Cossler said he prefers the term “creative district” to “downtown research district” because it “better encompasses what is happening. He also doesn’t like talking about downtown, the implication being that it excludes the neighborhoods.
“At the heart of research is creation but the creative district better encompasses what is happening downtown,” Cossler said. “It is absolutely critical for YBI that we create a more vibrant, robust fabric we possibly can.”
YBI’s campus is “busting at the seams,” Cossler notes, and the incubator will announce its fifth building shortly, which will add up to 70,000 square feet of space. “We’re already planning a sixth building,” he said.
One of the elements missing downtown is a “more wide-open embrace of the arts,” he also said. “We have a young workforce that enjoys the city. Many of them are living in close neighborhoods in the city” such as Rocky Ridge, the North Side and Idora, as well as living downtown. “So we do have to talk about the integration of the neighborhoods and or central business district, particularly the neighborhoods that border that central business district,” he said.
Much of the discussion involved building partnerships among the institutions and with the downtown. “The success of us and the success of the central business district are so interrelated,” said Shroder, whose organization runs St. Elizabeth Health Center nearby. He also pointed to the relationship with YSU that allows credits for HMHP’s Mercy College to transfer to the university.
YSU and Eastern Gateway aren’t competing for students but instead are cooperating to provide students the best opportunities that they can, Abraham said.
“Really, it’s all about building partnerships,” Abraham said. “The goal is to create opportunities for the students so they can move seamlessly between educational providers.”
Meeks sees Eastern Gateway as a “pipeline” to YSU and Kent State University. Eastern Gateway, which has 1,200 students at its Valley Center downtown, is expected to reach 4,000 in the next four or five years, which will require more downtown space, Meeks said, “So we’re very committed to being a wonderful partner,” she said.
“I’m new in Youngstown and I see it as a vibrant place,” she remarked.
“Our students want to be in a vibrant area. They want things to be here. They need opportunities for restaurants and for interaction with other students and other professionals,” Abraham said. “Our students are looking for opportunities to work downtown in business incubator companies or other companies that are coming into the area. They’re looking for places to live, places to participate.” The university population is increasingly composed of students who are seeing activities near campus when they are not in class and associate with their peers.
Shroder noted that business leaders need to do a better job of getting the word out about the area’s improved image. “I still think the community almost has an inferiority complex that we’ve got to change,” he remarked. Comparing the area 17 years ago when he joined HMHP to its state today, “it has drastically changed and it’s drastically improved,” he said.
Safety downtown isn’t an issue, Cossler insisted. “The No. 1 complaint I hear every single day is downtown is filthy,” he said. YBI regularly brings in people from around the world -- a group from Finland next week, for example -- but he also noted he wasn’t saying addressing it was the job of the city.
“Come by our campus every morning. Our employees are out cleaning the street,” he said. “That’s our responsibility as a landlord. That’s incumbent on every single landlord.” He also pulled a plastic bag from his pocket that he expected would be filled with trash by the time he walked back to YBI
A role the city can play is in zoning and building code enforcement, Shroder said. “We either need to fix [buildings] or get rid of them,” he asserted.
Abraham says he would like to walk people down from campus to have lunch downtown but has to take them past unattractive areas. “I’ve gotten better at knowing the right routes. It would be great if I didn’t have to worry about avoiding those areas,” he said.
On her way over to the panel, Meeks said she noted three potato chip bags blowing by the steps of the building. “It comes down to each one of us knowing we shouldn’t litter,” she said.
Participants in the second panel focused on what worked in their communities.
Alan Mallach, former non-resident fellow for the German Marshall Fund and a non-resident senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, said he couldn’t think of an example of a successful downtown revival that is completely driven by government.
“The most important thing that government can do is create the climate in which individual activities can flourish,” he said. That also means being “a lot of risk tolerance” and being open to the possibility of failure. “You have to be willing to accept risk and create room for change,”
Lowell, Mass., like Youngstown, suffered when its key industry fell and its economy lacked diversification, said the city’s director of economic development, Theresa Park. Success requires both a “top-down” and “bottom-up” approach, she said. Without a grand or long-term vision, short-term activities
“One of the things the city did was embrace the Richard Florida’s Book, Rise of the Creative Class, and what that meant,” she said. “He highlighted a couple of characteristics that define the creative economy.” Those include talent, tolerance – or embracing diversity – and technology.
In addition to assisting donors with philanthropy, The Columbus Foundation is interested in the economic wellbeing of its region, said Michael Wilkos, senior community research and grants officer with the foundation and a 1985 Boardman High School graduate.
In 2008, the governing committee of the foundation made a decision to focus some of its unrestricted grantmaking into a particular area and settled on neighborhood revitalization as an area where they felt the organization could make a difference, focusing on housing revitalization, employment strategy, community safety and positive youth development, he recalled. The foundation made a commitment to provide specific grant support to a distressed neighborhood near Ohio State University.
“You really have to be flexible and responsive to people’s needs and most significant activities or learnings that occur in your life happen through a relationship, so when we do this kind of community revitalization work we really have to build relationships with people who live in that community so that we’re not doing things to a community but we’re doing it with a community.”
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