Community Development Conference Brings Youngstown Native Home, Praise for ‘Renaissance’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Speaking to more than 130 people Thursday morning, Youngstown native Evelyn Burnett said she is surprised by the revitalized part of downtown.

As she sat outside on Phelps Street with her parents Wednesday, Burnett was “blown away” by the area.

“What was most striking was not only the physical development of the building… But there was a lot of diversity of people sitting outside,” especially Black people, she said.

That wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s, there were still segregated entrances that her parents used, she said.

Burnett was the keynote speaker at the Ohio Community Development Corporation Association 37th annual conference. Community development isn’t limited to restoring structures, Burnett said.

“The role of the CDC is to introduce a lifelong resident, or re-introduce a lifelong resident, to their city,” she said.

It’s also a responsibility of CDCs to encourage engagement from lifelong residents to feel a sense of belonging, Burnett said.

For Burnett, a sense of belonging for her and her family to their community is her parents sitting outside, having a meal and not worried about being treated differently because of their skin color.

Burnett lives in Cleveland and is co-founder of ThirdSpace Action Lab, a grassroots cooperative dedicated to prototyping creative place-based solutions to complex socioeconomic problems in low-income communities of color.

The greater Youngstown area is on the cusp of greatness, Burnett said after a campfire-type conversation Thursday in the Ford Recital Hall at the DeYor Performance Center.

Community development and collaboration between organizations, government and residents working together creates success, as evident by downtown Youngstown, Burnett said.

Helping CDC efforts succeed in Youngstown is a willingness to evolve.

“Youngstown is serving as an example that people have pride,” Burnett said, and people are looking to reimagine a new reality, present and future than what they’ve experienced their lives here.

Back In Youngstown

For the second time in just over a decade, the Ohio CDC Association held its annual conference in Youngstown, with the last time in 2011.

“We came back for a couple of reasons,” said Nate Coffman, executive director of the Ohio CDC Association.

Typically holding the annual event in larger cities, Coffman got to know the work of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. As YNDC programs progressed, CDC members and conference organizers wanted to highlight the work, calling it a “community development renaissance” in the Mahoning Valley, he said.

This year’s Ohio Community Development Corporation Association annual conference is in Youngstown. Nate Coffman, executive director, says it’s an opportunity to show how different programs have helped the Mahoning Valley as it evolves.

That is exactly what local community development leaders are excited to do: promote the growth and work that has been done, Coffman said.

“It’s a chance for us to show us… to show what’s worked, what hasn’t,” said Sharon Letson, executive director of Youngstown CityScape.

Hosting these events locally help visitors – other CDC directors, as well as bankers and financial decision-makers – to build networks that in turn can be used for a couple of different ways.

“It’s bringing a couple hundred community development professionals to Youngstown,” said Ian Beniston, executive director of YNDC. “They are staying locally, for several days, supporting local businesses.”

Another reason to hold the conference in Youngstown was to show how the different organizations have worked to see what has been successful, and understand why other initiatives weren’t, Coffman said.

For example, dissecting the Idora neighborhood, working with residents and organizations has set the neighborhood on a solid path, he said.

“It was time to circle back and see what happened in that decade,” Coffman said.

Conference attendees spent Thursday afternoon touring sites that illustrate community development in the Mahoning Valley. Among them were the Oak Hill Collaborative, Youngstown’s “cultural corridor” and neighborhood initiatives such as blight remediation and healthful food access in Warren.

The conference, which ends this afternoon, also promotes learning.

“There are professionals from around the state and country that will be doing workshops. It’s a chance for the Mahoning Valley to learn” what other areas around Ohio are doing, YNDC’s Beniston said.

Overall, local community development leaders are enthusiastic to show changes made over the last decade, especially as one large team, with teammates including organizations to community members.

“I really want folks to see that here in the Valley, we are really working together as organizations across the Valley, and more importantly, that that work is informed by residents through true community outreach and organizing,” said Matt Martin, executive director of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership.

Ranging from food access to job creation, the different grassroots efforts, larger organizations and philanthropic organizations, coupled with government entities, have worked together to improve life quality across the Mahoning Valley, Martin said.

“We want folks to see that we’re committed to building generational wealth in the here and now, and that we are committed to taking Warren’s proud history forward with us into a bold new future,” Martin said.

One thing Burnett is excited to take back with her to Cleveland is how Phelps Street, which used to be open to traffic and is now closed off and is home to tables and restaurant patios with lights strung overhead, turned out.

“Sometimes you have to experiment with things to see what they will be like. I’m eager to take that back to Cleveland and other parts of the country,” Burnett said.

Local community development organizations want to “show off” the progress made over the last decade in the Valley.

CityScape is proud of the progress downtown, while YNDC showed off work along the Glenwood corridor.

“The city is full of treasures,” Letson said. “The work is so long and hard, you forget to pat yourself on the back.”

Pictured at top: Evelyn Burnett was this year’s keynote speaker at the Ohio Community Development Corporation Association 37th annual conference. During her time on stage, Burnett said community development includes reintroducing a lifelong resident to their city, as well as encourage a sense of belonging for all residents.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.