Economic Development

South Avenue Merchants Realize It’s Up to Them

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The merchants who make up the South Avenue Business Association realize they must supplement police department efforts to reduce crime by improving the environment on the artery that runs by their shops.

Improving the appearance of their storefronts, not allowing trash to collect in vacant lots near their businesses and working with the city are essential if they to achieve these goals.

The association held its first formal meeting Monday morning attended by two dozen members, Police Chief Robin Lees, Jennifer Jones, coordinator of Green Youngstown, and T. Sharon Woodberry, director of community planning/economic development.

“Security is always going to be the hot topic. The key is going to be moving people beyond the focus on security,” said B.J. Duckworth, an account manager for Coca-Cola Refreshments, 531 E. Indianola Ave. Duckworth is coordinator for the business association.

The goal of the organization is to get business owners to collaborate on making the corridor and surrounding neighborhoods more attractive as well as safer. Blight and neglect attract crime, Duckworth said, so and maintaining properties and keeping the corridor clean helps to discourage criminal activity.

“Safety and security is obviously an issue” along South Avenue but the city isn’t “going to arrest our way out of this problem,” Lees cautioned.

In addition to the Nov. 19 murder of Abdullah Mahdi in the store he owned, Reema’s Fashion, two others – both drug-related — took place last year in parking lots along the corridor.

“What we know through our crime analysis is that either side of the South Avenue corridor are hotspots for criminal activity,” the police chief said. “What happens is they come out of those neighborhoods and they’re using the parking lots along South Avenue to transact those deals.”

The police department deploys additional squad cars to the corridor whenever possible and the Violence Interdictions Patrols – or VIP – program will return this year, Lees said. The vice squad has also been instructed to focus on the parking lots along South Avenue to ”hopefully discourage or interrupt” any criminal transactions.

The department is preparing to launch a new community policing initiative, Lees told the merchants. In response to concerns raised by former city councilman Clarence Boles, a resident of the South Side, related to the last time such a program was attempted, if this time it doesn’t work out, “we’ll move on to something else, because we’re here to solve problems, not to stagnate.”

The policing initiative “might be one of the most important

things” to happen on the corridor, said Angel Cruz, owner of Little Milly’s Oven Fresh Pizza. Cruz’s shop is next to the store where Mahdi was killed.

On March 24, 2008, a neighboring business operator, Joseph Kaluza, manager of the KFC restaurant that formerly operated on South Avenue, was shot in the head, leaving him paralyzed for life, Cruz reminded his listeners.

Businesses on the corridor “no longer just risk success financially” but owners and employees “risk our lives going in and out of our businesses,” Cruz remarked. “For the community, these thugs, they need to know that you guys are there,” he said.

Safety underlies all the other issues merchants and residents face along the corridor, Duckworth said.

“Not that we want to ignore security but we need people to understand that safety won’t fix itself,” he said. “We need to help the police but all these other things we want to do tie together.” Improving the storefronts and the appearance of the neighborhoods, which includes picking up trash, have a “negative effect on crime,” Duckworth said.

“The worse your business looks, the more of that [negative] element you’re going to draw,” he continued. “The better your business looks, the more those elements aren’t going to come to you.”

Jones and Woodberry, both emphasized Mayor John McNally focus on all of the city’s corridors, especially South Avenue.

“We’re looking at an investment of time, money and workers, everything that we have available to us to be able to really cause some momentum on the South Avenue corridor,” Jones said. The city would like to rehabilitate vacant lots along South Avenue just as has been done on Market Street done in partnership with Community Corrections Associations Inc.

“We would like to do a few smaller lots as well as do a showpiece lot somewhere on the street,” Jones said. A few lots have been identified and “we’ll have to work with the owners to see if they’ll turn them over to us,” she added.

In addition, the neighborhood bordered by South, Auburndale and Judson avenues and the railroad tracks will be targeted during this year’s United Way Day of Caring in September, she said. That area contains 71 vacant lots.

Jones reported that the code enforcement and blight remediation superintendent, Abigail Brubaker, conducted a sweep of South Avenue to identify property code violations. “Every single property that has a violation is in process,” Jones said.

“South Avenue is a priority,” Woodberry affirmed.

The city’s economic development director outlined the incentive programs the city offers. Among them are tax abatements for making property improvements, the Youngstown Initiative and façade programs. The last two have been allocated budgets of $200,000 this year.

Cruz, whose pizza shop has been on South Avenue since 2001, said afterward he is encouraged by what he saw and heard: “I’m confident in what’s going on right now and I’m feeling really good about it.”

“It’s always a good idea to get everyone together and organize and make sure you’re on the same page for improving the area. If it looks better, it is better,” said Bob Deagan, owner and president of Valley Awning and Tent.

Since moving to South Avenue 2½ years ago, the business has added new signage to the building, which also is going to be repainted. “It’s one thing at a time,” he remarked.

“Nobody’s going to come into this room and go out to their business and be able to completely remodel it overnight,” Duckworth said.

“There’s small things you can do – increasing lighting, cleaning the litter, painting your building – one step at a time that each business owner can do,” he continued. “When one does it the next one’s going to do it [and] the next one’s going to do it, and the community is going to notice that and hopefully patronize more.”

Pictured: B.J. Duckworth is an account manager for Coca-Cola Refreshments, 531 E. Indianola Ave., and coordinator for the merchants association.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.