Development Doesn’t Occur Easily in Older Cities

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — A stock photo of economic development could easily be taken in a community such as Lordstown. Trucks rumble up and down four-lane highways. New utilities are installed at sites that once were farmland, unmarred by industrial contamination.

Lordstown has so much room that two power plants, not just one, will rise in the village.

But what benefits rural communities such as Lordstown limits the kinds of business that cities and urban areas can attract. Older city streets are narrow. They have not updated or replaced their water lines and sewers since they were installed during the New Deal, if not Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. Neighborhoods often border industrial sites.

“The city infrastructure, especially in older northeastern Ohio communities, was built in the 1800s and the streets are narrow. The pipes for water and sewer – some of them are clay – are old and can break,” explains Michael Keys, community development director for Warren.

Beyond that, space is often at a premium. Many of the old manufacturing companies associated with Warren such as RG Steel, Delphi Packard and Thomas Strip Steel sit outside city limits, the borders creatively drawn with the sites often adjacent to – but outside – city lines. In the case of Thomas Strip Steel, now Tata Steel, the property is an enclave, a section of Warren Township, surrounded by the city.

The only area originally developed for manufacturing within the city, Keys says, is the Golden Triangle and that is an area split between Warren and Howland Township. There, the two municipalities are working together to improve infrastructure, including upgrading water lines and repaving Dietz Road and access roads.

With industrial space limited and shrinking populations, rezoning neighborhoods for use as commercial or industrial sites is becoming a common option for cities such as Warren and Youngstown. Just off U.S. Route 62 on Youngstown’s east side, the city has been acquiring parcels to make way for the chill-can plant proposed by Joseph Company International. Because the site, bordered by Route 62, Himrod Avenue, Oak Street and Fruit Street, is a neighborhood, each property had to be bought. For the properties with occupied homes, the city had to negotiate relocation costs as well as a price for the land.

“Prior to finalizing any deal with chill-can, that was an area we had identified as a target for transitioning from residential to industrial green, the reason being it was desolate of a lot of homes,” says T. Sharon Woodberry, Youngstown director of community planning and economic development. “Because of the lack of density in occupied homes in proximity to the freeway, it was a good site for commercial [development].”

A similar plan is in progress in Warren in the Westlawn neighborhood. The area was once home to an elementary school, since razed along with other abandoned structures. Nearby Deemer Park was developed in conjunction with the two and is used far less than it once was.

“That’s 60 acres we can use,” Keys says. “We do have those areas, similar to what Youngstown did with chill-can, where we have a lot of property no longer being used for residential.”

But rezoning neighborhoods isn’t as simple as looking at a map and saying, “This is industrial now.”

When discussions begin in Youngstown, Woodberry and her department weigh several conditions in neighborhoods under consideration: rezoning, the number of residents, the number of vacant houses and ease of access for shipping, whether by truck or rail.

“Then you have to have public hearings. People still live there and you may have pushback,” Keys says. “When we look at the studies and get the feedback, we sit down with council and ask how they want to handle it.”

It’s these kinds of projects – that require months, if not years, of planning, rezoning and granting incentives – that spur business growth at all levels, Woodberry and Keys say, not just industrial.

The AutoParkit project in Warren is expected to bring as many as 300 jobs, many architects and engineers, within a few years. The chill-can project is projected to be around 250.

Retail and services tend to follow the money. Most efforts from Warren and Youngstown are aimed at bringing in big companies that hire many workers because businesses can’t make money if local residents don’t have disposable income to spend.

“I have a problem with supermarkets. I’ve tried to get them to the southwest side and they just say there’s no market,” Keys says. “Residents will always tell me they want a supermarket, but the supermarkets say they won’t shop there. They’ll go for milk or cigarettes, but for grocery shopping they go to Walmart.”

There remains a focus on developing local businesses. Before the Great Recession, Youngstown had the Youngstown Initiative, a partnership that involved the city, the Small Business Administration and several banks to provide businesses equity to start or grow. But as budgets shrank and businesses slowed expansions, the initiative ended.

Today the city uses Community Development Block Grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which have a “limited amount of funding, nowhere near what we had for the initiative program,” Woodberry says, with more stringent requirements.

In Warren, a nonprofit agency, Warren Redevelopment and Planning, helps local entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. “

“Financing is always the issue. Do you have the funds? Are you looking for a loan? What are your resources?” says Executive Director Anthony Iannucci. “Then we can point them in a direction once we know where they’re at.”

The organization, also known as WRAP, helps businesses during all stages of development, from writing a business plan to finding a storefront. While dealing with businesses on a much smaller scale than AutoParkit or the chill-can plant in Youngstown, the organization faces many of the same issues as cities when they work with businesses concerned about aging infrastructure.

“The spaces we have are unique, especially downtown,” Iannucci says. “It adds character but it can also bring challenges because you’re in old buildings. And if you renovate a space, then you also have to spend the money to bring it up to code.”

What bodes well for Warren is the investment of a younger demographic and new blood. Christopher Alan, CEO of AutoParkit, has purchased buildings in the Park Avenue area north of downtown and is renovating them. Mark Marvin, president of Marvin Group Inc. and a Warren native, has purchased several buildings downtown with plans to renovate and update them. Adam Keck is working to get Modern Methods Brewery up and running downtown.

“It seems that it’s younger people stepping up and saying they want to do it. In the past, it was older generations who maybe did something in a business and wanted to open their own,” Iannucci says. “We’re starting to see, as we get property owners putting apartments downtown, demographics are changing and the downtown is becoming more attractive to millennials and younger people.”

A component of attracting businesses is community redevelopment. Few relocating or expanding companies see it as a priority – in Woodberry’s memory, only the Bottom Dollar grocery chain was deeply interested – but it still puts a good face on the community.

“When you talk about the things Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership does – and it’s not just TNP, there are a lot of groups that are important – it helps because it shows improvement in the city, that the city has character and strength and soul, and is willing to lift itself up,” Keys says. “It all has to work together because you don’t know what a developer is going to see or not see.”

Part of those efforts, which ties back into finding room for businesses to move, involves getting rid of blighted houses. For both development directors, demolition is always preferable to just boarding up houses.

“To get hands around the problem, you have to go aggressively with demolition because it didn’t happen for so long. There is a tremendous backlog of homes that have to come down,” Woodberry says. “Vacant homes bring down the value of homes in the area. They attract criminal activity. Demolition is that first tier of what you have to tackle.”

When all of these efforts – the infrastructure, the demolition, the rezoning, the development of entrepreneurs – are combined, cities set themselves up to rebuild their business community.

“What we want is good jobs for citizens,” Iannucci says. “We’d all love that business that has 150 employees and we hope for that with AutoParkit but you can get there with eight or nine companies hiring 20 employees too. And it adds a mix to diversity of what’s available.”

Pictured: Old infrastructure and a lack of greenspace limits redevelopment in older cities such as Warren, says Michael Keys.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.