Addressing Crime in Youngstown Starts with Changing the Story, Leaders Say

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Going forward, local leaders in Youngstown and surrounding areas are challenging people to adopt the phrase “Voltage Valley.”

The concept was part of a panel discussion held Tuesday by the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber at the Double Tree by Hilton | Downtown Youngstown as part of its Lunch & Learn series. Members of the public, private and nonprofit sectors attended the discussion, which was moderated by Shea MacMillan, director of economic development projects for the chamber.

Tuesday’s focus was the impact of crime on the economy. Panelists discussed controlling the narrative, including topics such as reimagining the Mahoning Valley and citizens entering the workforce after prison.

Mahoning County Juvenile Court Judge Theresa Dellick asked those in attendance to stop calling the area the Rust Belt.

“It hasn’t been that for a long time,” said Dellick, who was joined on the panel by Don Thomas, president of Platz Realty Group; Dionne Dowdy, executive director of the nonprofit United Returning Citizens; and Youngstown police Chief Carl Davis.

“Can we call it ‘Voltage Valley’?” Dellick asked.

Referring to the term Rust Belt, Dellick said times have changed and so should the mentality involving the area.

“That’s not who we are. We have most of our students walking around the streets or in school … They don’t even know what we’re talking about. So why are we continuing that story? It’s not true,” she said.

MacMillan noted that as he listened to each panelist discuss what they observe, there was a common theme.

“That is controlling the narrative,” he said.

When it was announced Ultium Cells was making a new home in the Mahoning Valley, chamber members immediately had global interest as they began referring to the area as Voltage Valley.

“They saw in the headline ‘Ultium’ and ‘Voltage Valley,’ and the narrative was reality,” MacMillan said. 

Interest was piqued and sites were shown to entities wanting to invest in the future. That included other businesses in the supply chain. Overall activity “blew up” once chamber members and local leaders began saying Voltage Valley, MacMillan said.

Fact-checking

Capt. Jason Simon, chief of detectives with the Youngstown Police Department, explained that while statistically on paper Youngstown is a “violent city,” over the last 20 years crime has been on “the downslide.” This information can impact how an outside company decides in invest in the area, he said.

Speaking overall about news coverage, statistics are generally not vetted through crime analysis, Simon said. Free crime-checker websites are not always accurate because the numbers are derived from calls a dispatch receives, he said.

Each call is not broken down and analyzed, as the caller will state what they perceive to be happening, with dispatch and officers making their notes as well.

To get a more accurate representation of a new place, whether to live or to set up a new business, Simon said to “look a little deeper than you’re being told.”

As an additional level of transparency, the Youngstown Police Department shares its crime analysis, he said. While car thefts and robberies happen anywhere, Simon said that untargeted violent crime isn’t a worry in Youngstown.

All of the panelists agreed that downtown Youngstown is safe, citing police presence during events and throughout the day and night. 

Platz’s Thomas said he believes downtown is safe enough for his daughters to go.

“I encourage you to come downtown because it’s absolutely safe,” Thomas said, adding recent issues at an establishment downtown were quickly handled by law enforcement and city administration.

In addition to overall city crime trending downward, Dellick said that youth crime has drastically dropped over the years.

In 2020, there were 15 gun-related charges with youth, Dellick said. 

Some of the discussion was pointed toward how media covers negative news in the Valley.

A suggestion made by the panel was to have a future sit-down with local media regarding the approach to shining more light on positive stories to keep businesses interested in coming to downtown Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley building economic development.

Talent pipeline

United Returning Citizens’ Dowdy works with inmates upon their exits from prison. Seemingly most businesses need to find employees, and they should consider individuals who are reentering the workforce after serving a sentence, she said.

“They’re already in a structured environment,” Dowdy said.

As a private employer, background checks and drug screens are stipulations for insurance purposes, Thomas said. “There has to be a way to make private employers be okay with hiring” citizens as they come out of prison, he said.

The take away

During a discussion prior to the program Tuesday, MacMillan said he was intrigued to learn that crime is declining.

Information shared at the luncheon gave insight to metrics that can be used to find solutions to problems that may be causing crime, which Simon said is committed by a small amount of people.

“One of the last things we learned in our studies putting this together, crime does not impact economic growth,” MacMillan said.

Crime is a separate variable, he said. Crime prevention spurs economic investment. Interested or incoming investors see the effort by a community to its people safe, in return leaving the investors wanting to be part of that community.

Attending the discussion was Struthers Mayor Catherine Cercone Miller.

“I learned the narrative we may be receiving is somewhat skewed,” Miller said.

Efforts to address any negative issues must continue, but that doesn’t mean that each community can’t showcase the good things.

“We need to project more of the positives and really work to bring the good we are doing in the Mahoning Valley to light,” she said.

Pictured: Shea MacMillan, director of economic development projects for the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber moderated a Lunch & Learn panel focused on crime’s impact on the economy. Panelists included Don Thomas, president of Platz Realty Group; Mahoning County Juvenile Court Judge Theresa Dellick; Youngstown police Chief Carl Davis; and Dionne Dowdy, executive director of the nonprofit United Returning Citizens.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.