WARREN, Ohio – Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership has its sights set higher than just demolishing or rehabilitating blighted houses in Warren. With 10 years of experience under his belt and an ever-growing team, Executive Director Matt Martin says the next steps are aimed at making Trumbull County the best it can be, while giving residents and local businesses the resources to help accomplish that.
Just tearing down houses and clearing vacant lots isn’t the attention-getter it was when TNP was founded in 2010, Martin says. Although that work is still being done, and will remain an important part of the nonprofit’s suite of duties, more attention is now being paid to building community resources, from improving access to healthful foods to creating a pipeline of workers ready to step into construction jobs.
TNP was awarded a grant in 2017 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study food access in the county. The result is guiding the nonprofit into its second decade of work.
“Our demolition and renovation work is based on the community neighborhood plans we’ve done for the city of Warren. We did the same thing on the food side. Our study includes a series of recommendations,” says Lisa Ramsey, deputy director of TNP. “Some of it’s continuing things we’re doing – things like the Warren Farmers Market and transportation to healthful foods. But it also noted there’s no grocery store on the southern side of the city at all.”
The dividing line is U.S. Route 422. In its Warren Community Food Security Strategic Plan stemming from the grant, TNP outlines swaths of the city without easily available fresh produce.
The largest area by far stretches from U.S. Route 422 south into the Niles area, where “a significant number of residents” are more than a mile from the nearest supermarket. On the northern and western sides of the city, most residents are more than a half mile from a supermarket.
At first, Ramsey and the TNP team considered working to get a grocery store to open a site in the underserved area. Eventually they turned their attention toward helping existing stores enhance their offerings.
With a $25,000 grant from the USDA’s Healthy Food Finance Initiative and the hiring in 2019 of Christian Bennett-Mosley as Trumbull County healthful food access coordinator, TNP has been working with convenience stores to help them provide fresh fruits and vegetables. The USDA grant can be used to help businesses to acquire nearly anything related to selling produce, from coolers and point-of-sale systems to signage and baskets.
Bennett-Mosley is in “constant relationship” with seven stores in the county to get their programs up and running. Ahead of a store offering produce, she and other members of the TNP team create marketing materials and press releases, organize community events and canvass neighborhoods to inform nearby residents.
Among the first to join was Lucky 7 Food Mart at 1265 E. Market St. Owner Masoud “Mike” Al-Eker says the addition of a produce cooler and display stand – the first thing customers are likely to see when they walk in – was a no-brainer.
“This is a walking neighborhood,” he says. “We don’t have big stores to go to. For them, it’s convenient here to get stuff. It may just be some garlic and onions. But it’s here instead of having to drive all the way out to big stores,” he says.
With a new point-of-sale system arriving soon – funded by the USDA grant – Al-Eker is considering how to expand his offerings. The store has a small kitchen area. So likely coming soon are fruit cups and smoothies made with fresh fruits that are popular among neighborhood kids.
“There’s a lot of junk food. But with this healthy food, maybe we can start to push it toward young kids,” he says.
“If someone is coming to buy produce, they’ll buy something else. That’s what’s helping me. It’s a one-stop shop. They’re shopping here and that helps me invest more in the store.”
Community investment, Martin says, is what the organization is focusing on as it enters a new decade of work. Founded in 2010, the nonprofit’s first major task was stabilizing the city’s housing stock. In the years since, TNP has demolished about 1,500 blighted houses across Trumbull County and saved nearly 450.
“We can speak categorically about housing and, in particular, blight remediation,” Martin says. “We haven’t gotten rid of every vacant house in the city or county through repurposing or homeownership. But I’d say the overwhelming majority, especially those in poor condition, are dealt with.”
Grant funding for TNP’s demolition work expired June 15. The organization has received $14 million since 2014 through the Neighborhood Initiative Program.
Martin says TNP’s attention now turns toward the Building a Better Warren effort. The program employs seven full-time workers to handle demolition, renovation and property maintenance work.
“We bring in people with essentially no skills in renovation or construction and provide on-the-job training,” says Shawn Carvin, director of the Trumbull County Land Bank, which is operated by TNP. “Now that the grant is ending, that’s not the end of the program. We’ve realized it’s sustainable long-term. So the focus is shifting more toward the renovation work.”
Building a Better Warren is a free-standing program that was built to operate without grant funding. Martin says the next goal for the program is to “double or triple” the number of people it employs and turn it into a jobs engine for the county. While it can’t replace the manufacturing jobs lost over the decades, the program can still give workers the skills they need to have good careers and potentially start their own businesses.
“The vacant lots and vacant houses are out there. … If all these guys who work for us leave to start contractor companies, so be it,” Martin says. “That’s perfect.”
Unlike the early years of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, the focus is on keeping the county’s housing stock stable and supporting homeowners. Last year TNP saw demand for emergency home repairs skyrocket – “more than in our first 10 years combined,” Martin says.
“Our waiting list quadrupled during COVID and we know people are choosing between the mortgage and the furnace,” he says.
The Trumbull County Land Bank also rehabilitates or demolishes commercial properties. It has an inventory of about 60. They are much harder to deal with, Carvin says, as TNP’s grant funding only applied to residential properties. By the time a commercial site comes into the land bank’s possession, it’s already fallen through all other nets meant to prevent it from becoming blighted.
“If a commercial property is on our inventory, it’s a problem. We do what we can to get them back to productive use and we’ve sold a couple. It’s great to do those because they’re usually big problems for the townships,” Carvin says.
With help from local government entities, TNP and the land bank do what rehab work they can and sell the properties, often for $1, “because the buyers are investing so much into them,” Carvin continues. “We have three projects that are under contract for new development: a corner store in Brookfield, a gas station in Brookfield and a hotel in Liberty. Those are all in due diligence.”
The second decade of work for TNP will in some ways look similar to the first, Martin says, with efforts still on making Warren and Trumbull County better places to live, work and play – whether through home repairs, improving city parks or ensuring access to fresh food.
But how the work gets done will be different. No longer is TNP a startup working out of a repurposed storefront without air conditioning. The organization has grown into a community resource, a jobs program and a support system for local businesses.
“At first, it was me and one other person boarding up houses. The expectations for us weren’t that high,” Martin says. “At this point, we’re somewhat institutionalized and we can’t shy away from that. We have to use our connection with residents to make sure our community has the strongest voice in what happens around here.”
Pictured at top: Among the leaders at Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership are deputy director Lisa Ramsey, Trumbull County Land Bank director Shawn Carvin, healthful food access coordinator Christian Bennett-Mosley and Executive Director Matt Martin.